The last spot in the NRL finals comes down to this. The Wests Tigers and Cronulla Sharks will meet in a winner-takes-all duel at the eighth wonder of the world: Leichhardt Oval.
Only one of these sides will survive to see the opening week of finals. As is the case with most games between mid-table teams this late in the season, it’s hard to get a good read on what the match is going to deliver due to their inconsistency throughout the year.
That uncertainty is emphasised ahead of this game on the final day of the regular season, with Leichhardt set to be rocking in a sell-out crowd and Robbie Farah battling to play his final match at the club’s spiritual home.
Farah’s involvement, or lack thereof, could have a big say on the way this game goes. While he is putting on a brave show to try and be ready well before he should in his recovery from a broken leg, coming in could only serve to disturb the balance of Michael Maguire’s side, who have been rolling along nicely lately.
While the hooker isn’t going to make much of a difference either way to the defence, it’s the attacking side of the coin which has been humming for the Tigers in the last fortnight with the much-maligned Josh Reynolds at hooker.
They have scored a combined 88 points across those two games, and while the performances did come against the woeful Newcastle Knights and St George Illawarra Dragons, they had to contend with the pressure of must-win games.
Reynolds has fit nicely into the Tigers spine alongside Luke Brooks and Benji Marshall, who have been their best halves combination by the length of the straight, and the always energetic Corey Thompson.
But the Sharks’ gritty forwards will provide a much sterner test for the Tigers to keep control of possession and territory throughout the game, as they have done over the last fortnight.
Cronulla’s recent results don’t look as strong as their opponents’ on paper, but they have been involved in some difficult games, and, had Shaun Johnson been fit last week, they probably would have beaten the Raiders and avoided having to worry about this tricky last-round scenario.
While John Morris’ side have lost recently to the Raiders and Panthers, and some of their wins have been scrappy – such as ones over the Dragons and Cowboys – they have still managed to play some good footy at times.
Their win over the South Sydney Rabbitohs a handful of weeks ago was one of their best of the season, and it was that game where their backline started to look properly in sync again.
While the side have again been disrupted by injuries, Johnson and Chad Townsend should work quite effectively in this high-pressure situation, complementing each other’s game nicely.
What’s more, the Sharks outmatch the Tigers in the forwards. While the form and fitness of Andrew Fifita is something of a worry, it will be a challenge for Wests youngsters Thomas Mikaele, Oliver Clark and Ryan Matterson to stop the experienced trio of Paul Gallen, Aaron Woods and Matt Prior, plus contending with Fifita coming off the bench.
There lies the Tigers’ problem. Their form looks good because they have played sides who have effectively checked out, allowing them to dominate the middle third.
That’s not going to be the case today, and if they can’t control the middle of the field then it doesn’t matter how good Brooks, Marshall, Reynolds and Thompson have been playing, because Townsend and Johnson will have the better opportunities to rack up the points.
The Sharks are made for games like this. A high-pressure situation which is looming as a forward-dominated, grinding match.
Paul Gallen isn’t going to want to go out of the game without making the finals, and the return of Shaun Johnson should clear up their well-documented goal kicking issues.
With that being the case, and Cronulla playing well enough despite dropping their last game at home, they should win, make the top eight and get set for a trip to Brookvale or Parramatta next weekend.
Sharks by 4.
1. Corey Thompson 2. Robert Jennings 3. Paul Momirovski 4. Esan Marsters 5. David Nofoaluma 6. Benji Marshall 7. Luke Brooks 8. Thomas Mikaele 9. Josh Reynolds 10. Oliver Clark 11. Luke Garner 12. Chris Lawrence 13. Ryan Matterson
Interchange: 14. Matt Eisenhuth 15. Elijah Taylor 16. Alex Twal 17. Michael Chee-Kam 18. Tommy Talau 19. Chris McQueen 20. Moses Mbye 21. Robbie Farah
1. Josh Dugan 2. Sosaia Feki 3. Bronson Xerri 4. Josh Morris 5. Ronaldo Mulitalo 6. Shaun Johnson 7. Chad Townsend 8. Aaron Woods 9. Jayden Brailey 10. Matt Prior 11. Briton Nikora 12. Wade Graham 13. Paul Gallen
Interchange: 14. Kurt Capewell 15. Jack Williams 16. Andrew Fifita 17. Braden Hamlin-Uele 18. Billy Magoulias 19. Blayke Brailey 20. Kyle Flanagan 21. Matt Moylan
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