The Cronulla Sharks lost their minor premiership showdown with the Storm and subsequently 2nd position on the ladder, booking them a trip down to the cold of the Nation’s capital. The Canberra Raiders on the other hand finished the regular season on the back of a 10 game winning streak to mark their first return to the finals since 2012 and their first finish inside the top 4 since 2003. Canberra will breathe a sigh of relief as fullback Jack Wighton escaped suspension at the NRL judiciary and is free to play.

The Raiders and Sharks met twice during the regular season, sharing a win each. The Sharks prevailed 40-16 in Round 7 while the Raiders returned the favour in Round 22 winning 30-14.

Last Time Out

The Cronulla Sharks faced off against the Melbourne Storm for the minor premiership. What was expected to be a titanic tussle turned out to be a rather average game with the Sharks blowing multiple scoring opportunities to go down 26-6 in a match where they made 5 line breaks to the Storm’s 3. It was a performance which added to their recent woes and reflected the average patch of form the Sharks had been in over the last month, having only won one game since Round 20 against the 15th placed Roosters. Their stellar run of form earlier in the year that saw them win 15 consecutive games is nothing but a memory now as they fight to keep their premiership hopes alive.

The Canberra Raiders travelled to Leichardt Oval to face a Tigers team with a chance to enter the Top 8 with a victory. Any suggestions that players would be rested including coach Ricky Stuart himself turned out be to false as the Raiders completely squashed any faint hope of a Tigers finals appearance, scoring five first half tries on their way to a 52-10 belting. Joseph Leilua pulled off the pass of the season as he flicked the ball behind his back without looking in an attempted tackle by Josh Addo Carr to set up a try for his wingman Jordan Rapana. The win allowed them to overtake the Sharks on the ladder and secure a home final.

Key Battle

Michael Ennis vs Josh Hodgson. Whichever Hooker can take control of the game and dictate terms around the ruck will go a long way towards gaining momentum for their team and the victory.

Michael Ennis may as well call himself Houdini after he was lucky to not be charged and potentially have his career cut short by the Match Review Committee on a shoulder charge on Blake Green. The Sharks will be very glad he escaped suspension as he is vital to any chance they have of winning the premiership. The wily veteran’s direction and creative skills out of dummy half helps keep the Sharks on the front foot throughout a game and his short kicking game in attack often gains his team a repeat set or try. His performance against the Storm was less than stellar as many of his grubbers on the goal-line were easily read and defused by Melbourne defenders. It’s a new week with a new opponent though and if the Raiders aren’t at their best defensively it provides Ennis with an opportunity to exploit any gaps or holes for all they’re worth.

Josh Hodgson has had an absolute stellar season and it has reflected on his status as one of the leading contenders for the Dally M award. His craftiness out of dummy half tore the Sharks to shreds last time and the Sharks will need to be very weary of what he can produce. His kicking game out of dummy half has resulted in 2 40/20’s, his darts out of dummy half can pinch some valuable metres and his knack for holding up a pass at exactly the right moment has produced 16 try assists, the most of any Hooker in the NRL. The variety he has in his arsenal will keeps the Sharks guessing as to what he will do and that unpredictability makes him one of the most dangerous players on the field. If the Raiders are to win this game it’s a fair bet Josh Hodgson will play a large part in the result.

Prediction

Many are predicting Canberra are simply too strong and in such good form that they should able to dispose of an out of form Sharks side and book a fast track to the preliminary final but I feel as if the Sharks are being written off too easily. One area in which the Sharks completely dominate the Raiders is the experience of their players in finals. The Sharks 1-17 has a combined total of 115 games finals experience with every single player having played at least one game come the business end of the season. The Raiders on the other hand have just 16 NRL finals games combined from 6 players. The match won’t exactly be like a job interview where experience reigns supreme but I think it’s a quality the Sharks have that can’t be understated.

I expect the game to be a highly entertaining one with the forwards absolutely ripping into each other and the ability of strike players to capitalize on opportunities like the duo of Leilua and Rapana or Ben Barba will be a defining factor in the ultimate outcome. Despite their average form heading into the match I think Cronulla have what it takes to lift to the occasion and remind everyone that they still have a long way to go. Sharks by 2+

Squads
Canberra Raiders
1 Jack Wighton
2 Edrick Lee
3 Jarrod Croker ©
4 Joseph Leilua
5 Jordan Rapana
6 Sam Williams
7 Aidan Sezer
8 Junior Paulo
9 Josh Hodgson
10 Shannon Boyd
11 Josh Papalii
12 Elliott Whitehead
13 Iosia Soliola
Interchange
14 Kurt Baptiste
15 Luke Bateman
16 Clay Priest
17 Joseph Tapine
18 Paul Vaughan

Cronulla Sutherland Sharks
1 Ben Barba
2 Sosaia Feki
3 Jack Bird
4 Ricky Leutele
5 Valentine Holmes
6 James Maloney
7 Chad Townsend
8 Andrew Fifita
9 Michael Ennis
10 Matt Prior
11 Luke Lewis
12 Wade Graham
13 Paul Gallen ©
Interchange
14 Gerard Beale
15 Chris Heighington
16 Jesse Sene-Lefao
17 Jayson Bukuya
18 Kurt Capewell