Round 16: Warriors v Sharks preview
Plenty at stake as finals contenders face off in Auckland
Opting to mitigate the impact of representative football by blocking several of his star players from taking part, Warriors coach Stephen Kearney will be hoping the decision to put club first pays off on Friday night. Having witnessed the second half decline of the New Zealand outfit in every season since the retrospectively anomalous 2011 grand final, the move to freshen up star trio Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Shaun Johnson and Tohu Harris could prove decisive for the fourth placed side as they look to establish distance from the likes of Melbourne and Sydney on the premiership ladder. Missing Adam Blair through a two-match suspension incurred following the win over North Queensland, the club's mandate concerning players involved in the Denver test has been partially upheld with Ken Maumalo, Peta Hiku and Issac Luke named on an extended bench having participated in the Kiwis 36-18 loss to England. In place of the representative trio, Gerard Beale, Anthony Gelling and Karl Lawton will come into the starting 13 as the Warriors look to overcome a disappointing record against Cronulla that has seen them lose four of the past five contests held in Auckland.
Beginning 2018 in lacklustre fashion before finding form by way of a six-match winning streak, inconsistent showings throughout June have made it difficult to gauge where the Sharks stand in the overall premiership hierarchy. Boasting more than half the members of the squad that claimed the club's maiden premiership title, the long-overdue move to inject young players into the playing ranks has proven beneficial for coach Shane Flanagan with Jesse Ramien, Sione Katoa and Scott Sorenson showing impressive touches in their first full seasons in the NRL, while paving the line of succession for the imminent retirements of triple centurions Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis. Offsetting the losses of co-captain Wade Graham (cheekbone) and Luke Lewis (calf) with the inclusion of mid-season purchase Aaron Woods, the Sharks will be hopeful of continuing the dominant form produced against the Warriors over the years, which has included a run of eight wins from the past ten clashes by a combined margin of 239 - 127. With contests between the pair usually decided by less than a try or a Cronulla blowout by an average of 32 points, the 26-12 result of last season's Round 21 fixture proved to be a rare occurrence given recent history between the two rivals.
Who to watch: On track to become the first Warriors player to break the 300 game milestone at season's end, former captain Simon Mannering will be looking to impart his experience upon a side filled with talented rookies. As one of two remaining members of the last New Zealand team to progress beyond the regular competition rounds, the 31-year-old veteran has been a consummate professional since debuting in the backline as a teenager under Tony Kemp, becoming one of the most respected Kiwi forwards in the process whilst remaining a pillar of consistency for both club and country. Spending much of 2018 coming off the bench in a changing of the guard role, Mannering will relish the opportunity to start in the absence of Adam Blair as the Warriors look to maintain a place in the highly coveted top four.
In what has proven to be a calamitous twelve months for a player previously regarded as one of the premier front rowers in the world, Aaron Woods will line up at his third club in the space of a season on Friday night. Taking up a release from Canterbury due to mismanaged finances on the Bulldogs' behalf, the 27-year-old Australian and New South Wales representative will be hopeful of finishing 2018 on a positive note as part of a Cronulla side bound for September. Named to play off the bench as a means of proving his credentials among a new playing group, the 2015 Dally M Prop of the Year could prove to be a masterstroke signing for the Sharks by simplifying his role from having to justify an over-inflated contract in favour of making metres and effecting tackles as part of a collective effort.
My tip: The decline of the Warriors has been anticipated for a long time and while Friday night won't signal the beginning of the final third collapse that has become customary for long-suffering supporters, the Sharks should prove too strong across the ditch. Sharks by 8.