Captain Fifita has power to overcome Storm
MICHAEL Ennis has backed Andrew Fifita to "rise to the occasion" if the rampaging prop is handed the Cronulla captaincy for Friday night's preliminary final in Melbourne.
With skipper Paul Gallen racing the clock to recover from a shoulder injury and fellow veteran Luke Lewis also under an injury cloud (calf), it could potentially leave the Sharks' leadership structure in tatters given co-captain Wade Graham is also injured.
The other big concern for Cronulla is that Cameron Smith will be in his element playing in front of a packed home crowd - and it goes without saying the Storm skipper is without peer when it comes to swinging his considerable influence on referees.
But Cronulla's premiership winning hooker Ennis knows first-hand what it takes to beat the Storm on the big stage.
And Ennis has no doubt if coach Shane Flanagan decides to go with Fifita it would bring the best out in the giant front-rower.
"I don't know if Gallen is going to play or if Lewis is going to play," Ennis said. "And with no Wade also, Andrew becomes a vital part of the Cronulla side.
"To beat Melbourne you need to be at your absolute best.
"And I believe Andrew becomes the x factor along with Valentine Holmes with no Wade Graham in the side.
"I think it would seem like a pretty smart move from Flanagan to elevate him given what we saw from Andrew at the start of the season."
Fifita captained the Sharks in the absence of Gallen, Graham and Lewis back in round eight and round 10, which resulted in wins over Gold Coast and Canberra.
The Sharks also boast an outstanding recent record against the Storm, winning four of their past five encounters, including both games this year.
And who could forget Fifita's match-winning performance in the 2016 grand final against the Storm.
"I just think when you head to such a hard place to play, AAMI Park, up against the Storm in a prelim final, that extra responsibility is something Andrew seems to thrive on," Ennis said.
"And given how important he is with the injuries we have had in our forward pack, that he may really rise to the occasion."
There is no doubt the Sharks will be up against plenty of emotion with a huge crowd on hand to cheer Billy Slater in his last game in Melbourne.
The other concern for Cronulla if Gallen is ruled out will be Smith's ability to have such a crucial influence on match officials.
Gallen has the experience to hold his own in that respect, having done it for years in club football and in State of Origin.
Asked if he believes it would be a factor this Friday night, Ennis said: "No doubt Cameron Smith has been one of the best at being able to get his points across to the refs, especially down there in front of a full house at AAMI Park.
"Cameron will be doing everything in his powers to make sure they get the 50/50 calls.
"And if for one minute they start to slide Cronulla's way then no doubt Cameron will remind them in the polite manner that he does.
"But Andrew is critical for Cronulla because he can do things and break open that defensive structure that they have got with his unpredictability.
"I just think that when Andrew also has that responsibility from what we saw at the start of the year he really handles it well."
Ennis also pointed to Fifita's performance in last week's win over Penrith to again illustrate the influence the big prop has on his teammates.
Fifita finished with 161m, the most of any forward on the field, as well as laying on the opening try for Chad Townsend.
"Andrew was outstanding in that opening 40 minutes against Penrith and no one really spoke about him because of how well Matty (Moylan) played and how well Luke (Lewis) played," Ennis said.
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