Round 24: Sharks v Raiders preview
Sharks look to confirm finals finish in Gallen farewell
The Cronulla Sharks will have no shortage of motivation against the Canberra Raiders as they look to confirm a place in finals with a win on Sunday afternoon.
Currently sitting in seventh position on 24 competition points, the Cronulla Sharks will be out to secure a record fifth consecutive finals appearance by continuing a strong strike rate over the Raiders that has yielded six wins from their past nine clashes.
Adding to the sense of occasion, retiring captain Paul Gallen will make his final home appearance after debuting with the club as a teenager back in 2001, while departing players Sosaia Feki, Jayden Brailey and Kyle Flanagan will look to finish their time in the Shire on a high before joining Castleford, Newcastle and Sydney respectively.
Coming into the match following an emphatic 42-16 win over the Warriors last Saturday, coach John Morris will be stressing the importance of coming away with two competition points in order to avoid a do-or-die encounter with the Tigers next week for a place in the top eight.
Boosted by the inclusion of fullback Matt Moylan from a recurring hamstring issue, the backline reshuffle sees Ronaldo Mulitalo drop out of the squad in the only change from the team that triumphed over the Warriors last Saturday.
Locked in a three-way tussle for a place in the top four, the Canberra Raiders will be out to take a huge step towards securing a second chance in the play-offs with a win on Sunday afternoon.
Falling short against the Sea Eagles 18-14 last Sunday, coach Ricky Stuart will be quietly confident in his side having recorded four wins from five visits to PointsBet Stadium during his tenure as Canberra coach.
Sitting in third position due to a considerably superior for-and-against differential in comparison to Manly and South Sydney, the Raiders will hold their place with a win, however a loss could see the side fall outside the top four should other results go against them.
Losing volatile centre Joseph Leilua until the finals after accepting a two-match ban for dropping his knees in an incident that saw the Sea Eagles awarded a possible eight-point try last week, NSW representative Nick Cotric move to the centres as part of a reshuffle that sees Bayley Simonnson come onto the wing and Siliva Havili fill the vacant utility role on the bench.
Who to watch: While much of the pre-match attention will be focussed on his legendary teammate, Cronulla hooker Jayden Braileywill be looking to cap off his time in the Shire with a win on Sunday afternoon. Set to join Newcastle on a three-year deal next season, the 23-year-old hooker has been a consistent performer for the club since taking over from veteran Michael Ennis in the aftermath of the club's landmark premiership win in 2016. Averaging just under 40 tackles per match to lead the way for the Sharks this season, look for the Aquinas Colts' junior to make a mark in his final home appearance.
Enjoying a brilliant season after moving into the front row on a permanent basis, Josh Papalii will be eager to get the best of Paul Gallen for the final time on Sunday afternoon. Forging a fierce rivalry with the Cronulla skipper throughout the decade, the 27-year-old enforcer has revelled in his new role to average over 140 metres per game as part of a lethal revamped forward pack under Ricky Stuart this season. Set to become only the 12th player to reach 200 NRL appearances for the Raiders early next season, look for Papalii to give a strong account of himself in an important prelude to finals football.
My tip: With so much at stake for the Sharks, the cumulative effect of farewelling their greatest ever player with a September finish should get the home side over the line in a fierce contest. Sharks by 7.