The maths are looking increasingly grim for the Warriors – but a flicker of NRL finals hope continues to burn.
With six round-robin matches remaining, Stephen Kearney’s troops need at least five wins to hit the traditional 28-point finals barrier – yet, beyond Friday’s clash with the high-flying Sharks, that challenge doesn’t seem insurmountable.
Matches against fellow battlers Newcastle, Canberra and South Sydney will follow, before a major test at home in the form of sixth-placed Manly.
A tussle with the lowly Tigers will then close out the season.
For Warriors skipper Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, there’s no reason why his 12th-placed side can’t sneak into the top eight – or even cause an upset this weekend over the fourth-placed Sharks, who have lost three of their past six games.
All the right signs had been there in the Warriors’ 24-12 loss to North Queensland last weekend, particularly up front.
Typically flaky for much of the 2017 campaign, the Warriors’ forwards showed genuine steel against the Cowboys, making more running metres than their opponents and neutralising the likes of Jason Taumalolo and Coen Hess.
“The Sharks, they’re another similar team to the Cowboys – a big forward pack,” Tuivasa-Sheck said, referring to the rampaging Andrew Fifita.
“If we can continue to have our middles play that physical game up front, and a few of us fix our execution plays – that’s where we lost in the last game – against the Sharks, we can fix it up and come away with the points.
“A lot of the errors from the Cowboys game were players just not clear on what plays we’re on, where we’re supposed to be.”
With Shaun Johnson still nursing a knee injury, Mason Lino retains his grip on the Warriors’ No.7 jumper ahead of fellow young gun Ata Hingano.
More damaging for Kearney’s side, however, is the loss of prop James Gavet to an arm injury – placing the onus on Ben Matulino and Jacob Lillyman to front.
Kearney was confident the pair would do the business.
“The focus this week is on making sure, up against another good team, that we make them earn every metre they can,” Kearney said.
“All week it’s been about making sure it’s an 80-minute performance, and not having those periods where we drop off. It’s a wonderful challenge against the defending premiers and what they bring.”
STATS THAT MATTER:
– Cronulla has won seven of their past nine NRL matches against the Warriors – however, each of the previous four has been decided by four points or less.
– Despite sitting 12th on the NRL ladder, the Warriors have lost just twice at Mount Smart Stadium in 2017, to Melbourne and Penrith.
– The Sharks have lost away from home just once in 2017.