Coming off a 54-4 drubbing of the South Sydney Rabbitohs, the Canberra Raiders are primed to cement themselves as genuine premiership contenders when they face the Cronulla Sharks at Southern Cross Stadium on Saturday.
Both teams come into the game with impressive form. The Raiders haven’t lost since Round 14, whilst the Sharks only forfeited their 15 game winning-streak in a draw against the Titans on Monday night.
The Sharks will have only five days to recover from the bruising 90 minute encounter with the Titans, a factor that may play into the Raiders hands on Saturday.
The Raiders forwards will have to keep composed as they come up against a Shark’s pack considered by many to be the most powerful in the competition, says Canberra prop Clay Priest.
“Watching them on Monday, the way they played versus the Titans it was quite a physical game,” Priest said.
“There was a lot of niggles and it's going to be an interesting factor to the game.”
The Raiders will have will have to put in a complete performance if they are to overcome the ladder-leading Sharks, says halfback Aidan Sezer.
“I think they're [Sharks] the benchmark at the moment. They've got a great team all around the park and they're still undefeated for 16-odd rounds,” Sezer said.
“Our work’s cut out for us this week. They pulled our pants down last time we played down here so we've got to perform well and hopefully put in a good performance.”
After a contentious tackle in their game against the Titans, Sharks’ star James Maloney succeeded at the judiciary last night in escaping suspension.
“He's [Maloney] a quality player who's going to make a difference to any side he enters,” said Sezer.
The Raiders will need to be prepared for a battle, with Sharks forward Andrew Fifita likely to play after being cleared of a foot injury.
Ricky Stuart has been forced to make one change this week, with Brenko Lee replacing Edrick Lee on the wing. Edrick is looking at a 2-3 week stint on the sidelines with a minor calf injury.
James Maloney's escape from suspension will mean the Sharks will field an unchanged line-up for Saturday's game. Even with an injury cloud, Andrew Fifita has been selected at prop.
Sia Soliola v Paul Gallen
After another strong season which has seen him lead the way for the club’s junior forwards, Soliola will be the player his side looks up to as they face a monstrous Sharks’ pack. Soliola averages 30 tackles a game, but the lock will need put in an immense defensive performance if he is to stop a Sharks side that can score from anywhere.
Gallen will be out for blood as he tries to ensure Cronulla take home a maiden title. The captain had one of his best games of the season against the Titans, amassing 184 metres from 23 runs whilst making 33 tackles.
Jarrod Croker v Jack Bird
Croker has been one of the catalysts in the Raider’s rebirth, bringing out the best of his young side as captain, whilst piling on a mountain of points. Croker has scored 15 tries this season whilst leading the competition’s points-ladder by 62 over his next closest rival. Whilst he received criticism for his defensive capabilities, stats show that he is amongst the best centres in defense, having missed only two tackles in his past three games.
After impressing in his debut State of Origin series, Bird has proven himself as a talent of the future with consistent displays for the Sharks. The 21-year-old has scored four tries in three games and his pairing with winger Sosaia Feki has lead the creation of one of the most potent attacking edges in the game.
Jordan Rapana v Valentine Holmes
The Raider’s winger has played all 19 games this season and leads the competition in line breaks, with 20. Rapana’s ability to find the line will be imperative for a Raider’s win this weekend as both teams look to their backs for points.
Holmes is Rapana’s next closest line break rival, with 18 from his 19-game- season. The Sharks will look wide to the 21-year-old who has the footwork and speed to get around most defensive lines.
Highlights from the last time the Raiders and Sharks met in Round 7