As we reach the penultimate week of the NRL season, early in the year there were discussions around having a “wildcard round” where teams showing late-season form got the opportunity to make a play for the semis.
While the concept was parked, we do get a very similar game this weekend at Leichhardt Oval when Cronulla Sharks and Wests Tigers face off in an eighth-place elimination.
With two Sydney teams that have displayed some good form of late playing at this iconic venue, rugby league fans should brace themselves for a tough and desperate contest.
Benji Marshall’s performances in the past two weeks have seen him merge his maturity and vision with flashes of his past brilliance.
Many will want to see Robbie Farah return to hooker and play his last home game at his spiritual home.
Marshall’s early form around the ruck has created genuine hesitation in opposition defence.
Injecting Josh Reynolds’ enthusiasm in the middle of the park and releasing Benji to attack edges is a formula that has worked well for the Tigers, making the selection call for Michael Maguire extremely difficult.
The Tigers’ shining light is their backrow in the form of Luke Garner, Chris Lawrence and Ryan Matterson and they will need to be at their best this Sunday for the home team to progress in the semi-finals.
The balance between genuine strike and skill on the attacking edges has been equalled by the defensive intent these three guys have shown in recent weeks.
The Sharks’ strike weapons on both sides of the field will undoubtedly test this strength.
Shaun Johnson has developed potent combination with Briton Nikora and Bronson Xerri on Cronulla’s right hand side.
Wade Graham is an ever-present danger on the left with the full bag of tricks from a strong running game, deft passing skills both pre and post contact and great touch with his left foot kick.
It is interesting that many have been critical of the Sharks this year when assessing their competition status, however – as was the case against Canberra on Sunday – this year they have lost five times when scoring more tries than their opposition.
This means that if their goal kicking had been on the money in four of those games they would be sitting safely in the top four.
The ‘would have, could have’ sob story will mean little unless their key middles rule the roost.
Paul Gallen and, in particular, David Fifita need to reach into their past and bring their best games and control the ruck speed down the middle third in both attack and defence.
This will give Johnson and Chad Townsend time and reduce the decision-making opportunities for Luke Brooks and Benji.
This has all the marking for a great game of footy a week out from the semi-finals and will prepare us all for the quality of games we can look forward to over the next month.
Like all games around this time of the year the result is difficult to predict. But I would have to say I see the Sharks having the potential to go deeper into the semis.
The Tigers making the eight is in itself a significant achievement in their evolution under Madge.
Former St George player, Matthew Elliott has coached NRL teams Canberra, Penrith and New Zealand Warriors