Round 20: Cronulla v Manly preview
Finishing off the twentieth round is an intriguing battle between two sides vying for the top eight in the surging Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles and the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks at Suncorp on Monday night.
Cronulla keep being "Schrodinger's finals side" - at times they can be both inside and out of the top eight - with their fans oscillating wildly between joy and sorrow (usually tied directly to the health of halfback Shaun Johnson). Facing another extended absence of their star man thanks to a hamstring complaint, they will inject more of their talented young stars to help them cement their spot in the top eight (well, at least seventh).
Interim coach Josh Hannay has helped to stabilise the side which, when the former Shark and Cowboy took over, were looking at a long, long winter. He has molded the side into one that competes each weekend. Leading that charge is fullback Will Kennedy. He has been the breakthrough star for the Shire side and will relish the chance to come up against Tommy Turbo.
Besides a game against Melbourne to finish the season, Cronulla has an advantageous run home where they face four sides below them on the ladder. So, win those four and limit the damage against the Sea Eagles and Storm will have them trying to take a bite of the finals again.
2021 has been a wild ride for the Sea Eagles. They started the season losing their first four games in the opening month before a blitzkrieg of points and results have them in sixth - and six points clear of seventh spot.
Much of that has been due to the blistering form of Tom Trbojevic but there have been enough support characters which have helped their ride. Jason Saab has become one of the game's finest finishers and the work of the rest of the backline has helped their positive for-and-against which might add a healthy chunk on the weekend.
Back-to-back results after their shock loss to the Raiders has stablised the side but now they look to make a late swoop on the top four. A star fullback, magician Josh Schuster and some fine finishers make the Sea Eagles a scary prospect for the rest of the side's in the top eight come September.
Who to watch: Often the Swiss army knife in the Sharks backline - Connor Tracey gets a shot in his preferred position of the halves this weekend. Tracey has shown already in 2021 his abilities whether on the wing, centre or five-eighth so he will be ready for action on Sunday. Another important cog for the Sharks this time in their pack is Siosifa Talakai, the hulking second rower who makes an impact in his runs and will need to dent the Sea Eagles pack for the Sharks to have a chance.
For the Sea Eagles, it would be easier for you dear reader and myself if we went for the easy option - one Tommy T but I think a new sensation has hit the scene. Josh Schuster returned from injury and has provided some spark on the edge for the Sea Eagles. The master of no-look passes may have more tricks up his sleeve as the Sea Eagles aim for the top four.
The favourite: Manly have shown they can put a score on quickly especially against those below them and should do the same this weekend.
My tip: Put together with their record against the boys from the Shire, Manly's form is undeniable. Manly by 30.