The fourth-placed Cronulla Sharks entertain second-placed Melbourne Storm in what looks sure to be a cracking game in the NRL in Sydney on Thursday night.
Penrith look to be marching towards the minor premiership as they sit six points clear at the top of the ladder but the race is on for second spot, which is a big advantage when it comes to playing finals at the end of the year.
The Storm hold it at the moment but are just two points ahead of the Sharks. The North Queensland Cowboys are sandwiched between in third spot with the same points as the Storm.
So it could not be much tighter as the business end of the season fast approaches. It means the opening clash of the round on Thursday night could have big consequences for the rest of the season.
An epic battle is on the cards so let’s take a closer look at both sides heading into the game.
What: Cronulla Sharks v Melbourne Storm
Where: PointsBet Stadium, Sydney
When: 19:50 (AEST), Thursday 7th July, 2022
How to watch: Channel 9, Kayo, Foxtel
Odds: Cronulla 7/4, Melbourne 9/20
Big few weeks for the Sharks
The Sharks face a massive few weeks as they look to secure a place in the top four and possibly push even higher.
They kick-off with the game against Melbourne and then face the Cowboys and Panthers in the following weeks. It does not get much bigger and they really need to get off to a good start against the Storm.
Cronulla will take a look at the Melbourne absentee list and also realise that they probably will not have a better chance of taking the two points.
Despite Melbourne lacking some big names, Sharks coach Craig Fitzgibbon is still expecting a very tough game as the Storm look to bounce back from last week’s defeat against Manly.
"They're a club that's built on a system where if anyone leaves, someone else comes in and fulfils that role,” he told reporters ahead of the game.
When asked about the tough run of games on the horizon, he added: "We've got the right to be in the position we're in but I have no illusions as to what's coming up."
The Sharks are in good form though having won their last three games on the bounce and will be out to keep the good times rolling against the Storm.
Cronulla will be missing star centre Siosifa Talakai who is in State of Orgin camp with New South Wales ahead of next week’s decider against Queensland. The versatile Connor Tracey has played centre on five occasions this season and will slot into the role again.
Winger Ronaldo Mulitalo will be key for the Sharks. He has been a huge threat this season with 22 line breaks, the most in the NRL this season. Fellow winger Sione Katoa has 15 so the Sharks pose a real threat down both flanks.
Nicho Hynes will again be up against his former club and has a huge role to play in the halves. His battle against Storm counterpart Jahrome Hughes could go a long way to deciding who wins this one.
Storm missing key players
The Storm have been hit by a number of big injury problems heading into the game.
Queensland State of Origin duo Harry Grant and Cameron Munster are both with the Maroons preparing for game three, while Xavier Coates and Reimis Smith are both out through injury. Felise Kaufusi is in the USA to be with his sick father and is also unavailable.
Brandon Smith will play at hooker to replace Grant, while Dean Ieremia will play on the wing as Nick Meaney moves to five-eighth. Josh King is the new lock and Nelson Asofa-Solomona will start at prop forward.
Craig Bellamy’s side will still be stinging after losing to the Manly Sea Eagles last week. They came roaring back at the death and had the game lasted another five minutes, probably would have won.
The Storm have made a habit of bouncing back the week after losing a game. They also have enough quality to cope with the loss of key players. However this will be their biggest test yet.
After the game against the Sharks, Melbourne do have a good run of fixtures before they wrap up the regular season against the Panthers, Broncos, Roosters and Eels.
They will be hoping to have everyone back fit and firing by then as they head into the finals campaign. But for now they will be taking one game at a time. Starting with the Sharks.