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Sharks look to prove doubters wrong as Rabbitohs eye GF rematch
The Sharks secured a top-two finish for the first time since 1999 and equal-most regular season wins in the club's history but by the end of Saturday night it could all mean nothing.
Cronulla was only minutes away from sealing its spot in the preliminary finals before a surging run from Jason Taumalolo and golden-point field goal from former teammate Valentine Holmes.
After 93 long minutes, the Sharks were instead forced to prepare for the rejuvenated Rabbitohs, who are a genuine premiership threat led by fullback Latrell Mitchell.
The one criticism of Cronulla heading into the finals was its soft draw and last Saturday was just the fourth time this season the Sharks had conceded 30 points or more, with all coming against top-eight teams.
In saying that, the Sharks did win their only meeting with the Rabbitohs earlier this year, with Nicho Hynes kicking an 86th-minute field goal on that occasion after Tom Burgess was sent off.
Burgess won't be there this time around, serving a suspension for his role in what was a wild elimination final victory over the Roosters last week. He is replaced on the interchange bench by Michael Chee-Kam.
It is hard to read too much into that game. The Roosters were already without Joey Manu and quickly lost both James Tedesco and Angus Crichton as the Rabbitohs cruised home.
To their credit, Jason Demetriou's men did well to maintain their composure after Burgess and Taane Milne were sin-binned in quick succession, outscoring the Roosters in that period.
While both Cronulla and South Sydney boast strong forward packs, this one may be decided in the outside backs.
These teams are two of the best in the competition to watch when they are clicking in attack, with all members of the backline moving together with surgical precision near the try-line.
The winner of this week's game faces the Panthers next Saturday at Accor Stadium while it is season over for the loser.
Last meeting: Round 20 2022 - Sharks 21 Rabbitohs 20
Who to watch: If Cronulla have the advantage anywhere in this game, it could be the composure of its halves pairing, led by Nicho Hynes. With three try assists and four linebreak assists to his game last week, Hynes definitely knows how to create points. But the key to finals football is closing out the contest and that is something he will continue to learn as he develops into his role at halfback. The biggest area of improvement left in his game remains his long-range kicking and will be particularly important this week given Latrell Mitchell's presence at the back for Souths.
Speaking of Mitchell, he is undoubtedly still the player to watch for South Sydney. You always got the sense he would answer back after being well-handled by the Roosters the week prior and he did just that, although there is still plenty left in the 25-year-old. Having missed last year's grand final through suspension, Mitchell has emerged a more mature version of himself and a leader that the Rabbitohs desperately need with Adam Reynolds up north. Mitchell owns the big moments and if Souths find themselves in a similar situation to that the Cowboys were in last week, look for their fullback to stand up.
The favourite: The Sharks may have finished second but a lot of money is coming for the Rabbitohs to win this one.
My tip: The key to this game will be how Cronulla recovers after last week's brutal 93-minute thriller. The Sharks may not have the hype but they know how to grind their way to a win, something the Rabbitohs have not always been the best at. Nonetheless, it all seems set up for Mitchell to inspire the Bunnies to another win and set up a shot at revenge against the defending premiers. Rabbitohs by 8.
1. Will Kennedy 18. Lachlan Miller 3. Jesse Ramien 2. Connor Tracey 5. Ronaldo Mulitalo 6. Matt Moylan 7. Nicho Hynes 8. Toby Rudolf 9. Blayke Brailey 16. Braden Hamlin-Uele 11. Briton Nikora 12. Wade Graham 13. Dale Finucane 14. Teig Wilton 15. Cameron McInnes 17. Andrew Fifita 19. Aiden Tolman 22. Mawene Hiroti
1. Latrell Mitchell 2. Alex Johnston 3. Isaiah Tass 4. Campbell Graham 5. Taane Milne 6. Cody Walker 7. Lachlan Ilias 8. Tevita Tatola 9. Damien Cook 10. Mark Nicholls 11. Keaon Koloamatangi 12. Jai Arrow 13. Cameron Murray 14. Kodi Nikorima 15. Hame Sele 16. Michael Chee Kam 17. Siliva Havili 18. Davvy Moale
Referees: Grant Atkins; Sideline Officials: Drew Oultram, Michael Wise; Video Referees: Adam Gee;