For the second time in two weeks, third plays host to fourth when the red-hot Sharks travel down to South Sydney to take on the equally impressive Rabbitohs, is what is easily the match of a truncated round. It's a shame that this match up has been affected by Origin, as both teams are in great form; the Sharks having won their last six on the bounce, while the Rabbitohs have won their last four, and six from their last seven starts.
The Rabbitohs looked every bit the premiership side they desire to be, having out-muscled and outplayed the Warriors in Auckland last weekend, running out 30-10 winners. This week is a real test of the depth of Anthony Seibold's squad, however, with key players Greg Inglis, Damien Cook, Dane Gagai and Angus Crichton all being rested for Origin duties.
Meanwhile, Cronulla are riding a wave of confidence of their own, after a Matt Moylan-inspired performance led to a hammering of the Knights 48-10 in Newcastle last Sunday. While their last five wins have come against teams outside the top eight, they had previously been by margins of eight or less. That performance has set them up for an Origin period where they will be largely unaffected, only losing Valentine Holmes. This could be a critical period for their season.
Round 20, 2017 – Sharks 26 def. Rabbitohs 12 at Southern Cross Group Stadium
Round 24, 2016 – Rabbitohs 12 def. Sharks 6 at ANZ Stadium
Finals, Week 1, 2015 – Sharks 28 def. Rabbitohs 12 at Allianz Stadium
Round 7, 2015 – Sharks 18 def. Rabbitohs 10 at Remondis Stadium
Round 11, 2014 – Rabbitohs 18 def. Sharks 0 at Remondis Stadium
With Greg Inglis out, Sam Burgess takes over captaincy duties. Alex Johnston is still injured, so utility Adam Doueihi moves to fullback. Dane Gagai's absence means a new centres pairing of Braidon Burns and Hymel Hunt. The other talking point is the return of Robbie Farah to hooker, to cover for Damien Cook. He has been outshone by his counterpart since coming from the Tigers, and this is his opportunity to repay the faith shown by Seibold and bring back the skills that made him an asset at Wests Tigers.
Sosaia Feki deservedly comes back into the side for Valentine Holmes. Andrew Fifita also comes into the starting line-up after resting a knee injury last week.
|South Sydney Rabbitohs||Cronulla Sharks|
|1||Adam Doueihi||Josh Dugan|
|2||Campbell Graham||Sosaia Feki|
|3||Braidon Burns||Jesse Ramien|
|4||Hymel Hunt||Ricky Leutele|
|5||Robert Jennings||Edrick Lee|
|6||Cody Walker||Matt Moylan|
|7||Adam Reynolds||Chad Townsend|
|8||Thomas Burgess||Andrew Fifita|
|9||Robbie Farah||Jayden Brailey|
|10||George Burgess||Matt Prior|
|11||John Sutton||Luke Lewis|
|12||Sam Burgess (c)||Wade Graham (c)|
|13||Cameron Murray||Paul Gallen (c)|
|14||Tyrell Fuimaono||Joseph Paulo|
|15||Mark Nicholls||James Segeyaro|
|16||Jason Clark||Ava Seumanufagai|
|17||Tevita Tatola||Jayson Bukuya|
|18|| Mawene Hiroti||Kurt Capewell|
|19||Connor Tracey||Jack Williams|
|20||Dean Britt||Sione Katoa|
|21||Kyle Turner||Scott Sorensen|
The facts that matter
Fact: they will be missing four Origin players. This will really be a test of the squad's ability to cope without key players Inglis, Gagai, Cook and Crichton. The Rabbitohs have done a great job of hitting hard up the middle and then freeing up their outside backs to create chances. Cook has also been excellent and running the ball out of dummy-half, and will be sorely missed.
However, they have the Burgess brothers to call on, and it is here where the battle could take place. They, sometimes literally, bowled their way over the Warriors defence last week on their way to the line, and it will be that kind of physicality that will be required when they line up against Paul Gallen and Andrew Fifita.
What was also underrated about last week's performance was the ability to complete their sets, for 86%. Cody Walker and Andrew Reynolds outperformed the Warriors halves and put more pressure with their distance kicking. Reynolds has the fifth most kicking metres for the season (3,300).
The match also sees the return of Robbie Farah. He hasn't been the same since his acrimonious move from the Tigers, and while Cook is playing for NSW, this could really be his opportunity to show what he is capable of. Like Cook, Farah likes to run the ball out of dummy-half, and might be the injection the Rabbitohs need in the ruck.
Shane Flanagan has largely stuck with the same side that demolished the Knights last week, and there has been no need to tinker with the combination. Matt Moylan's inconsistent form hasn't won him a NSW jumper this year, yet, but his record six try assists last week and more of the same again against a top four side this week will keep him on Brad Fittler's radar. Alongside Chad Townsend, it will be an intriguing battle against Reynolds and Walker.
Paul Gallen continues to churn out the metres each week, alongside his usual tackling workload. With Andrew Fifita for company this week, they must do well shut down the Rabbitohs pack featuring the Burgess brothers and Co. They might also do well with their runs to the line and forcing repetitive penalties and a potential sin-bin, which wouldn't be the first time.
The team will want a win against a top four side, and unlike last year, where they missed Moylan, Gallen and Fifita on Origin duty, all those players are available with only Valentine Holmes dropping out. This period could be where they cement their top four status where other top teams will be depleted.
It will be a testing match for the Rabbitohs. They have accounted for the first-placed Dragons and then third-placed Warriors in recent weeks and are on a roll. But losing four first-choice players in the space of one game may be one hurdle too many. The Sharks are running hot and they can only beat what's put in front of them. With Fifita back this week, and a depleted Rabbitohs ripe for the taking, this is their chance to put away a win. My tip: Sharks by 8.