For the past two weeks, the Warriors have been splashing around the shallow end of the NRL pool. First they dive-bombed the kids from Newcastle, then they effectively drowned the Roosters’ season. Now, on Saturday evening, the men from Mt Smart head out into the big, bad ocean for a face-to-face encounter with the NRL’s deadliest creature of 2016.
Any team that wins 10 games in a row is one to be respected, but this Cronulla side looks particularly fierce. After 15 weeks of the season, they find themselves atop the NRL ladder, having already taken a chunk out of the other teams currently circling the Top 4. In Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird, they boast two of the most exciting young players in the competition, and with the likes of Fifita, Gallen, Ennis, Lewis and Wade Graham, their forward pack is among the best in the business. Once they smell blood in the water, look out.
And, while I don’t remember seeing any Sharks in The Lord of the Rings, Cronulla’s halves certainly look right at home in the Shire.
Chad Townsend, in particular, seems to have found the consistency to his game that eluded him over in New Zealand. Despite showing glimpses of his talent at Mt Smart, there’s a chance Townsend will be remembered more for his likeness to the Bendon Man than for his on-field performance, but he now looms as a serious threat that the Warriors will have to contain in order to come away with the result.
However, if there is such a thing as a good time to battle a Shark, this week would go down as one of the better ones. Cronulla has four players backing up from Origin, and the Warriors will hope that representative disruption, combined with last week’s bye, is enough to blunt the Sharks’ momentum. In addition, the men from Mt Smart dive into this week’s encounter boosted by their own three-match winning streak. They’re a team starting to gather momentum, and once that Warriors rollercoaster begins to pick up speed you never quite know where it might take them.
A key area of interest this week is how the Warriors defence can withstand the inevitable Shark attack. The men from Mt Smart proved against the Roosters that they are capable of grinding out a win, and they’ll have gained a great deal from that performance. But Cronulla are on a different level altogther — the Sharknado is coming, and the best way to come away unscathed is to bop them on the nose before they can sink their teeth into you.
Ata Hingano remains with the NRL squad this week, as cover for both Shaun Johnson and Thomas Leuluai, although signs suggest the Warriors will field an unchanged line-up bar the return of Jacob Lillyman from Maroons duty. As always, the forward pack needs to win the middle of the park, but, for me, Tui Lolohea must be a key figure if the men from Mt Smart are to challenge this Sharks outfit. As the Roosters game showed, in a tight match sometimes all it takes is one moment of magic to secure the two points. With Johnson clearly not at 100 per cent, Lolohea stands out as someone who could turn the match in the Warriors favour in an instant, and the way he injects himself into this game will be crucial.
It’s going to be a tough ask, of that I am sure. You need more than luck to win 10 straight games in this competition, and the Sharks may well have their best-ever chance to break their 50-year title drought. Just ask LeBron James how that feels.
Cronulla provides the toughest test to date for a Warriors side who, despite three consecutive wins of their own, still haven’t established their position in the Premiership discussion. Are they a playoff team? A title dark horse? A genuine Top 4 contender? Or is this just history repeating itself, the usual mid-season run followed by the late-season nose-dive? Performances in recent weeks have at least showed that the Warriors have the firepower to beat anyone on their day, but a win against the top-of-the-table Sharks would really put the frighteners up the rest of the NRL.
By the end of this match we should have a much better idea if the men from Mt Smart are serious predators or simply mid-level prey waiting to be devoured by the bigger fish. Time to kill or be killed, Warrior Nation.
Cronulla Sharks v New Zealand Warriors, 25 June, Southern Cross Group Stadium, Sydney
Gate Opening Time: 3pm
Main Game Kick Off: 5:30pm (7:30pm NZ time)
1. Tuimoala Lolohea 2. David Fusitu’a 3. Blake Ayshford 4. Solomone Kata 5. Ken Maumalo 6. Thomas Leuluai 7. Shaun Johnson 8. Jacob Lillyman 9. Issac Luke 10. Albert Vete 11. Bodene Thompson 12. Ryan Hoffman 13. Simon Mannering. Interchange: 14. Nathaniel Roache 15. Sam Lisone 16. Ben Matulino 17. Charlie Gubb 18. Ata Hingano 20. Toafofoa Sipley
1 Ben Barba 2 Sosaia Feki 3 Jack Bird 4 Gerard Beale 5 Valentine Holmes 6 James Maloney 7 Chad Townsend 8 Andrew Fifita 9 Michael Ennis 10 Sam Tagataese 11 Luke Lewis 12 Wade Graham 13 Paul Gallen. Interchange: 14 Ricky Leutele 15 Chris Heighington 16 Matt Prior 17 Jason Bukuya 18 Joseph Paulo