Cronulla will have five-eighth Blake Austin firmly in their sights on Saturday, as they do battle with Canberra for a crack at the NRL’s top eight.
Austin wowed fans and players alike with a hat-trick inside the opening 15 minutes of last week’s demolition of Newcastle at GIO Stadium.
The Raiders star has scored eight tries in his past five appearances at home, with at least one a match.
If he plants another this weekend, he’ll join Todd Carney as the only player to score in six straight games in a single season at the venue.
“He’s been outstanding,” Sharks coach Shane Flanagan said on Friday.
“He’s playing off the back of a forward pack that’s going good and he’s a real runner of the football.
“We have to be on our guard and mark him up.”
Austin will however be missing his in-form halves partner Sam Williams, sidelined for up to six weeks with a pectoral injury.
The Raiders have only won once in the six matches Williams has been out this season.
Despite naming Kurt Baptiste at No.7 on Tuesday, coach Ricky Stuart has kept his replacement a closely guarded secret, with both Mitch Cornish and Josh McCrone also training during the week.
But the Sharks will have a not-so-secret weapon of their own.
Ben Barba has been in top form in recent weeks, his impact off the bench crucial to the club’s four wins in their past five clashes.
It’s a formula Flanagan is keen to stick to even though Barba wants a spot in the starting line-up.
“When he comes onto the field, I know all the boys just get a bit of a spring in their step and say `here we go, we’re going to start to attack at another level’,” the coach said.
“He has been really good for us the last month.
“He’s starting to bounce back to the Benny Barba we know and he’s playing a really important role at the moment.”
With the Sharks in ninth and Raiders 10th, a victory could send either side into the top eight.
Flanagan knows how important this time of season is in shoring-up a place in the finals.
“The teams that are going to be in the semi-finals are going to be the teams that knuckle down over the next month,” he said.
“You don’t want to be in that last month and counting, `oh we’ve got to win three or four’. We want to have control of our own destiny.”
STATS THAT MATTER
* The Sharks have lost all 14 games in which they’ve scored less than 20 points at GIO Stadium but won all nine when they’ve scored more than 20.
* Paul Gallen will play his 250th career match but the Sharks skipper has a poor milestones record. He lost his debut, 50th, 100th and 200th games, winning only his 150th against the Raiders in Canberra.
* Jarrod Croker needs just seven points to overtake Clinton Schifcofske and become the Raiders second all-time leading point scorer behind David Furner.