Round 15: Sharks v Broncos preview
Cronulla's surging 'Up Up' the ladder and host a Brisbane side struggling for in-match consistency.
The Sharks have been raking in the competition points of late, having won seven of their last eight clashes. However, the streak has lacked strong performances and statement wins. Since round 7 the Sharks defeated Penrith by four points, Gold Coast by one, Parramatta by two, Canberra by eight, Canterbury by six, the Mitchell Pearce absent Knights by 38, had a loss to South Sydney by eight and an eight-point win against the Wests Tigers last week. Only one of those wins is against a top eight team, which was against the Panthers without Nathan Cleary and Josh Mansour in round 7.
Because the NRL has a large disparity between talented teams this season, the Sharks are only seventh on the ladder. Cronulla can't be satisfied with their form if they want to contend with the league's best at the end of the season. Their next next four of five matches are against top eight teams.
Much criticism has been made of Brisbane's inability to be a dangerous attacking side. Wayne Bennett's halves experiments this season with Anthony Milford, Kodi Nikorima and Jack Bird highlighted what is a recognised problem. While that's still being troubleshooted, the Broncos have found ways to score enough points for victory. They've averaged scoring 22 points a game in their last eight matches. Defensively they go through lapses, as they conceded 32 points against the Melbourne Storm in last week's 16-point loss and let in 26 or more points on four other occasions in 2018.
Similarly to the Sharks, Brisbane has rarely looked a convincing winner this season. Of their last four victories, they beat the Rabbitohs 24-20 in round 8, the Bulldogs 22-20 in round 9, the Sydney Roosters 26-22 at the death in round 11 and the Eels 18-10 in round 12.
Luke Lewis is expected to play despite leaving last Sunday's win against the Wests Tigers early with a concussion. James Roberts returns after he didn't back up from Origin due to ongoing Achilles tendon soreness. Jack Bird misses this clash against his old team and Bennett said he may need more surgery on his shoulder. The Sharks have named an unchanged team.
It was a blowout at Suncorp Stadium in what was Gallen's 300th match. Brisbane enjoyed 59 per cent of possession and Cronulla made 16 errors. Three of the last four matchups were won by the Broncos, with two of those wins at Shark Park.
Who to watch: Valentine Holmes started playing some of his best football ahead of the Origin period and he's become a difference maker of late. With five tries in his last three matches (four with the Sharks, one for Queensland) he finds himself filling in at fullback for the injured Josh Dugan. Holmes has been outspoken about his intentions to be a first-choice fullback for the Sharks, a strong performance on Saturday will help his cause.
Corey Oates, Sam Thaiday and Joe Ofahengaue pitching their case for Queensland selection. Oates admitted he was not good enough for the Broncos against Melbourne last week and still has a goal of playing for the Maroons this year. While changes in the backs for Queensland is unlikely for game two, he's got plenty of reasons to lift his form. The Maroons' forwards are in the spotlight and Kevin Walters could be thinking the return of Thaiday is needed. The Bronco looked busy against the Storm but Melbourne's forward pack was stronger and Ofahengaue made a bigger impact than Thaiday.
The favourite: While the Sharks have rarely looked convincing in their last two months of football, they have the benefit of playing at home and their best players available (except Josh Dugan). The Broncos have struggled all season with their attack, fading out of games, dealing with injuries to key players and now find themselves in the tough Origin period.
My tip: The Sharks started slow against the Tigers last week, they can't afford to give Brisbane that same advantage and I'll back them to restrict the visitors. Andrew Fifita, Paul Gallen and Wade Graham will set the platform for lots of scoring opportunities. The Broncos will struggle to make meters without the help of errors and penalties, and continue to be shaky defensively. Sharks by 10.