Round 17: Sharks v Storm preview
The Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks have an opportunity to continue their push for a top four spot as they host the Melbourne Storm on Thursday night at PointsBet Stadium. Not only is that top four spot crucial for the Sharks, but they also have a chance at redemption after suffering a 16-point loss at the hands of the Storm earlier in the season.
After a comfortably win against the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs on Saturday, the Sharks will be looking to extend their current three game win streak as they return home for the first time since Round 12. The Sharks were excellent on Saturday in their 12-point victory and showcased their immense talent in terrible conditions. The most eye-popping statistic from their weekend fixture is their 39.1 metres gained per set compared to a measly 29.7 metres per set by the Bulldogs. One, it highlighted the Sharks ability to charge up the field despite the torrential rain and secondly, their excellent defence which prevented the Bulldogs from gaining any territory.
This will be pivotal against the Storm in a game which could be played under rainy conditions once again, who are coming off an underwhelming performance against the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles. A win for the Sharks would hand the Storm their first back-to-back defeats since the second and third games of the 2021 season, an incredible feat.
Former Storm premiership player, Nicho Hynes, will be pivotal this Saturday as he was against the Bulldogs last weekend. His kicking game was excellent, featuring two forced dropouts and an array of bomb kicks which led to the Bulldogs tallying only 47 kick return metres, putting the pressure on the Bulldogs from the very first tackle. If it is to rain again, this could the tactic that Hynes looks for.
After an outstanding performance on Saturday, Siosifa Talakai is the only omission for the Sharks after being selected in the New South Wales side again, allowing Connor Tracey to come back into the fold at centre.
Meanwhile, the Storm are looking to get back on the winners list, after losing to the Sea-Eagles by six-points. However, the margin is misleading as the Storm trailed 36 points to 12 with seven minutes remaining, until a flurry of four tries in the final six minutes against an uninterested Manly defence brought them to a respectable margin on the scoreboard. Craig Bellamy would've been disappointed with the apparent ease of Manly's try scoring plays and he'll be reminding his players of that throughout the week.
The Storm have a bit to play for with a win ensuring that they hold onto second spot for another week, whereas a loss would see the Storm slide into third place as the North Queensland Cowboys have an incoming two-points due to the bye. To do so, they're going to need to improve upon their yardage game from Thursday night, averaging just 33.6 metres per set compared to the 38.9 metres per set gained by the Sea Eagles. However, it is Melbourne we are talking about, so it wouldn't be a surprise to see them back to their best, despite being without their Origin stars. They still boast the likes of Ryan Papenhuyzen, Jahrome Hughes and Brandon Smith, just to name a few. In contradiction, the Storm do field a fairly inexperienced outside back group and bench, which could be exploited by the almost full-strength Sharks.
For Melbourne, Cameron Munster will miss his second game in a row, this time due to Origin selection, giving Nick Meaney to opportunity at five-eighth with Jayden Nikorima dropping out of the side after fulfilling that role last week. Harry Grant will also be on Origin duty with Brandon Smith being named to start at dummy-half. Tryan Wishart and Jordan Grant join the bench to round out the 17.
Who to watch: On Thursday, two of the games better halfbacks will face off in an important top four battle, Nicho Hynes of the Sharks against Jahrome Hughes of the Storm. Hughes got the last laugh over Hynes earlier in the season, now Hynes can even the ledger. The 26-year-old has been exceptional in his first season at Cronulla, playing a pivotal role in the Sharks ascension into the top four. In his 15 appearances this season, Hynes has scored three tries, assisted nine and averaged a whopping 122 run metres, incredible for a halfback. Hynes will be a running threat for the Sharks as well as a kicking threat, having accumulated 17 forced dropouts so far this season, with 13 of those coming in his last seven outings.
His opposite number, Jahrome Hughes, has been just as exceptional, if not better this season. The New Zealand halfback has been immense to the Storms' success this season and showed his worth on the international stage in the Kiwis' recent victory over Tonga. Having won 49 of his last 66 NRL matches, Hughes will be searching for his 50th club win since the start of the 2020 season. This season has seen some of his finest football having scored nine tries and assisting 10 in his 13 appearances this season. 93 metres per game paired with five forced drop outs showcases the all-round ability of the 27-year-old. Without Munster and Grant, Hughes will be pivotal to a Storm victory, as he has been many times throughout the season.
The favourite: The Storm are slight favourites to come away with the two points, however, they are the team more hampered by Origin selection. They did defeat the Sharks earlier in the season, which extended their current win streak over Cronulla to five games, dating back to the 2019 season.
My tip: With Munster and Grant out, this looks like it's going to be a very close game. This Sharks have the more well-rounded squad, but then again, the Storm hardly lose back-to-back games. With the Storm's omissions I'm tipping the Sharks in a tight one. Sharks by 4.