Cronulla skipper Paul Gallen and front-rower Sam Tagataese are all but certain to return from injury when the Sharks play in a fortnight for a spot in this year’s NRL grand final.
Cronulla earned a week off after stealing a 16-14 comeback win over Canberra on Saturday night in a memorable qualifying final, giving extra time for the key pair to return.
Gallen didn’t even arrive in the nation’s capital after hurting his back during training midweek, opting to stay in the Shire as his teammates upset the Raiders on their home turf.
“It’s one of those disc problems that came during the week,” Sharks coach Shane Flanagan said of Gallen.
“He felt it after he had lunch after a gym session and just progressively got worse during the week. We tried to push him but it just needs time to settle and, once it settles, it’ll be okay, touch wood.”
Tagataese hasn’t played since injuring his back in round 22, and his absence has been missed in a forward pack who have struggled to match it with some of the bigger forwards in the competition.
Star forward Andrew Fifita led the Sharks’ middle in Gallen’s absence, racking up a game-high 216 metres, six offloads and four tackle breaks.
But stand-in skipper Michael Ennis praised unheralded forwards Matt Prior and late call-up Kurt Capewell for their contributions against the Raiders, including Prior’s game-changing try late in the first half.
“His form throughout the year has been exceptional,” Ennis said.
“There’s some good forwards with great reputations in Gallen, Fifita, Graham and (Luke) Lewis, and a lot of his stuff goes unnoticed.
“But tonight, his contribution, for a front-rower to be able to change the momentum of the game at 38 minutes … it’s as good as I’ve seen from a front-rower tonight. He was outstanding.”
Flanagan said Capewell would be hard to leave off the team sheet for their grand-final qualifier.
“He looked at home there on a big occasion. He’s bided his time in our NSW Cup side and deserves his chance. It’s going to be hard not to put him in the team when we play again,” he said.