The Cronulla Sharks will be looking to continue their historic winning streak on Sunday afternoon, when they host the lowly Newcastle Knights at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
The Knights, buoyed by the return of Jarrod Mullen, put in a strong showing against Melbourne last start, however will face a red hot Cronulla side, who despite playing poorly against the Roosters on Monday night, claimed their 15th straight victory.
Andrew Fifita will return for Cronulla following a one week suspension, while the Newcastle side will welcome back Dane Gagai to fill the custodian role.
LAST TIME OUT
The two sides last met in Newcastle in round 10, and while it is a day they would rather forget, the Knights will likely have vivid memories of a 62-nil thrashing, a game that they will no doubt use to stoke the fire for this week’s clash.
Cronulla on the other hand, will be looking to return to the defensive form that helped them hold the Knights to zero on that fateful day, after letting the Roosters score twenty points in their last encounter.
Newcastle will take a lot of confidence from coming close to victory against top eight sides Canberra, who they lost heartbreakingly to in Golden point, and Melbourne who they pushed all the way before succumbing to a four point loss.
The Sharks have not been beaten at home in 2016, and haven’t lost since round 3 though, and coach Shane Flanagan will be urging the side to throw off the complacency they showed against the Roosters.
Wade Graham vs Mitchell Barnett
After earning Origin selection, Wade Graham showed against the Roosters that the form that got him in to a sky blue jersey has no signs of slowing. Against the Roosters, Graham made 163 metres in an 80 minute performance that included twenty tackles (missing just one), and one line break. Graham has been one of the key reasons the Sharks are firing, with his work load immense throughout the season.
This week he will face Knights mid-season recruit, Mitchell Barnett, who comes from the Raiders following their own recruitment of former Knight Joseph Tapine. Barnett has proven a real asset for the Knights, and has heled his new team improve in their go forward, highlighted when he produced 161 metres and 25 tackles for the red and blue against the Storm. It is always a big motivation to come against a high quality player, and that is the opportunity facing Barnett in regards to Graham.
James Maloney vs Jarrod Mullen
James Maloney forced his way in to the NSW lineup this year, and will this week face off against a previous Blue in Jarrod Mullen.
Mullen was once touted as Andrew Johns replacement to lead the Blues forward, but after being pushed in to the Origin arena too early, he has since fallen back to the pack. Add to this a number of long injury layoffs, and you would forgive Mullen for dropping his head. However, Mullen has not done so, putting in a strong showing in his return to first grade last week against Melbourne, and almost leading his side to an upset of mammoth proportions.
Mullen will need to perform as admirably if not more this week, coming up against the top side in the NRL. Like Barnett with Graham, Mullen can measure his game based on how he competes against the Blues half in Maloney.
The Sharks five eighth sent a scare through the side last week when he went off early with a niggling injury, but is expected to take his place in the side on Sunday, after a week of lighter training duties. With six try assists, four personal tries, and a controlled kicking game which has resulted in 2332 kicking metres for his side, Maloney’s recruitment to the Sharks for 2016 was pivotal in their catapulting to the top of the ladder and he will again be a key man if Cronulla are to continue on their winning ways.
The Sharks embarrassed the Knights at home in round 10, winning in every facet of the game, despite a slow opening period during that encounter. After a poor showing against the Roosters by their 2016 standards, the Cronulla side should be primed and firing, buoyed on by a vocal home crowd on a Sunday afternoon in the shire. It won’t be 62 points, but anything but a convincing Cronulla win would be a surprise.
Newcastle will want to try and avenge the thrashing from round 10, and look an improved side with Mullen back at the helm, however the Cronulla juggernaut looks set to extend their winning streak to 15.
Sharks by 20
Sharks: 1 Ben Barba 2 Sosaia Feki 3 Jack Bird 4 Gerard Beale 5 Valentine Holmes 6 James Maloney 7 Chad Townsend 8 Andrew Fifita 9 Michael Ennis 10 Sam Tagataese 11 Luke Lewis 12 Wade Graham 13 Paul Gallen. Interchange: 14 Joseph Paulo 15 Chris Heighington 16 Matt Prior 17 Jason Bukuya
Knights: 1 Dane Gagai 2 Nathan Ross 3 Pat Mata’utia 4 Peter Mata’utia 5 Brendan Elliot 6 Jarrod Mullen 7 Trent Hodkinson 8 Sam Mataora 9 Danny Levi 10 Korbin Sims 11 Pauli Pauli 12 Mitchell Barnett 13 Jeremy Smith. Interchange: 14 Chris Adams 15 Jacob Saifiti 16 Josh King 17 Mickey Paea 20 David Bhana