It's finals time in the NRL for season 2018 and the minor premiers the Sydney Roosters (qualified 1st; 16-8) host the Cronulla Sharks (qualified 4th; 16-8) at Allianz Stadium in another cross-town derby which promises be a close-run encounter. To put into context how close the race for the minor premiership was, four teams - Roosters, Storm, Rabbitohs and Sharks all won 16 matches this season and only the Roosters' superior points differential pipped the rest to the line.
After being ousted by the Raiders and then beaten by a superior Broncos side, the Roosters clocked back into form with a thumping 44-10 win over the hapless wooden spoon winners the Eels last week. It was what they needed after a tough couple of weeks and while there will be sterner challenges ahead starting with tonight; it was the confidence booster Trent Robinson's side needed.
The Sharks haven't always done it easy this season, with some of their winning margins less than convincing, and they would have been smarting after the last-gasp loss to the Sea Eagles a few weeks back. But to give credit where it is due, they have rebounded back with wins over reigning champions the Storm in Melbourne, along with the Cowboys, Knights and away to a resurgent Bulldogs side last week to be sitting four on the bounce coming into finals. Along with Brisbane, they are currently one of the form sides.
2018 - Roosters def. Sharks 28-10 at Southern Cross Group Stadium
2017 - Roosters def. Sharks 16-14 at Southern Cross Group Stadium
2017 - Sharks def. Roosters 44-12 at Grahame Park, Gosford
2016 - Sharks def. Roosters 37-12 at Southern Cross Group Stadium
2016 - Sharks def. Roosters 32-20 at Allianz Stadium
The head-to-head overall is relatively close, with the Roosters leading 22 wins to 16 with one tie over their 39 previous encounters. The Roosters won comfortably back in round 5 but the Sharks have had the better of the ledger in recent times, having won seven of the last ten matches including the last three at Allianz. They last tasted defeat there in 2013 when the Roosters hammered them 40-0. With the Roosters only conceding 15 points on average per game this season, Cronulla will be wary of how tough it will be on attack.
Trent Robinson has stayed with the same 17 that disposed of the Eels last week, however with some positional changes as Victor Radley returns to lock, moving Isaac Liu to the second row and Mitch Aubusson to the bench.
Ricky Leutele has recovered from his knee injury, and he takes his place in the centres. This moves Kurt Capewell to the bench and Scott Sorensen to the reserves. Jesse Ramien continues to recover from his ankle injury and has also been named in the reserves.
|Sydney Roosters||Cronulla Sharks|
|1||James Tedesco||Valentine Holmes|
|2||Daniel Tupou||Sosaia Feki|
|3||Latrell Mitchell||Josh Dugan|
|4||Joseph Manu||Ricky Leutele|
|5||Blake Ferguson||Edrick Lee|
|6||Luke Keary||Matt Moylan|
|7||Cooper Cronk||Chad Townsend|
|8||Jared Waerea-Hargreaves||Andrew Fifita|
|9||Jake Friend||Jayden Brailey|
|10||Siosiua Taukeiaho||Matt Prior|
|11||Boyd Cordner||Luke Lewis|
|12||Isaac Liu||Wade Graham|
|13||Victor Radley||Paul Gallen|
|14||Lindsay Collins||Kurt Capewell|
|15||Zane Tetevano||James Segeyaro|
|16||Mitchell Aubusson||Aaron Woods|
|17||Ryan Matterson||Jayson Bukuya|
|18||Nat Butcher||Scott Sorensen|
|19||Sean O'Sullivan||Ava Seumanufagai|
|20||Matt Ikuvalu||Joseph Paulo|
|21||Kurt Baptiste||Jesse Ramien|
The facts that matter
For the minor premiers, the Roosters are surprisingly at the top of the list for negative plays. Their 12 errors per game will always give other teams a chance and they also lead for ineffective tackles with an average of 19 per match. Compare that to the Sharks' 16 per match and both sets of forward packs will fancy their chances getting up the field for territory. It makes it all the more bemusing since they are only conceding 15 points per match, defending really well on their own line. We have seen some matches this season decided by only the slightest of margins and the Roosters do not want a loose error to be the difference.
Cooper Cronk looks to have a enjoyed a season without representative football and seems to have really pushed the Roosters to another level at times. He has formed a potent partnership with Luke Keary on attack, with Cronk turning in 10 line-break assists and 14 try-assists, whilst Keary has 17 line-break assists and 19 try-assists to his name. They only need a bit of space to get it to their backs where Blake Ferguson and Latrell Mitchell have 40 line-breaks between them. With James Tedesco also in great form, it's a dangerous proposition for the hardened Sharks' pack.
With the pack they have amongst their ranks, the Sharks very well know they could win this match up front with Andrew Fifita, Paul Gallen and Luke Lewis ready to go. Fifita in particular can have that impact on a match if he runs hard and straight as his average of nearly four tackle busts will attest to. He has made an average of 125 metres per game and if you add Gallen's 130-metre average to that, it could be what puts the pressure on the Roosters' defence to allow Matt Moylan and Chad Townsend. Fifita's match-up against Jared Warea-Hargreaves could prove very interesting. The Sharks will just want to make sure they are tight on defense with 16 ineffective tackles per game - the Roosters much vaunted backline will need no second invitation.
Valentine Holmes has been in excellent form since the State of Origin series and is one of the form fullbacks in the competition. He is averaging around three tackle busts per game, with 25 line breaks this season, eight try assists and thirteen offloads (the Sharks are second behind the Warriors this season with 287 offloads). The Sharks are the right side of the ledger in all these statistics this season and Holmes will look for his forwards to help convert his great play into points.
A few weeks ago I probably would have said the Roosters would win this comfortably, but the Sharks' determination to win some tough encounters, most notably away against the Storm, has made me re-think this match-up.
No doubt it will be tough for the Sharks and I expect it to be a lower-scoring tussle; they must put the pressure on the Roosters' who have been careless with their error rate but are solid on defense all the same. They have the forwards to do it and a live wire in Holmes. But the Roosters' season has been built on defense and they some have electric backs in the mix, coupled with a potent halves combination. I expect this match to be close and it wouldn't surprise me to see it go either way.
Tip: Roosters by 1.
Who will book their passage through with a win and who will be forced to play sudden-death footy next week? Let us know in the comments below.