CRONULLA'S title hopes could hinge on the fitness of Todd Carney, who will head into this Sunday's Canberra homecoming under an injury cloud.
The NSW five-eighth, who was banished from the nation's capital in 2008 after a series of off-field misdemeanours, aggravated an Achilles injury late in yesterday's loss to North Queensland.
The 26-year-old, who avoided the media after the loss, sent a scare through the Sharks camp when he went down so close to the start of the club's first finals campaign in four years. The extent of the injury is still unknown, but Cronulla coach Shane Flanagan does not believe he'll lose his key playmaker for the clash against the Raiders.
''He has a bit of a twisted ankle,'' Flanagan said. ''We will have to check on it but I don't think it's too bad.''
On an afternoon where the three most influential players on the field - Carney, Johnathan Thurston (head) and Paul Gallen (knee) - all had injury scares, it was Cronulla's premiership credentials which received the biggest fright.
Flanagan was disappointed with the effort of his side, conceding their minds weren't on the job.
''Our performance today wasn't anywhere near where it should be,'' he said. ''I have a sneaky suspicion they were looking ahead to next week a bit too much. It's hard for some of them to get it out of their heads. I'm making no excuses for it and, hopefully, it is a blessing in disguise.''
Gallen said the club's early season success, which had them in contention for a top-four berth, impacted on the mindset of his players. The Sharks have struggled in the second half of the season but, now they are finally in the play-offs, they will concentrate on the job at hand.
''About four weeks ago we were talking about top four, but things didn't go to plan,'' Gallen said. ''But it is hard to not think about it when you haven't been there for a long time. We have to learn that it doesn't matter what comes next week.''
The Sharks find themselves in sudden-death football. They have won two of their last nine games, but Gallen believes they can regroup in time for the game against the Raiders.
''We would have liked to go in there on a roll, but a week is a long time in rugby league,'' he said. ''It's not hard to turn it around, we know what it is. We just have to run around and tackle a bit harder - it's not that hard to fix.''
A victory against the Raiders will see Cronulla play the loser of the game between the Storm and South Sydney Rabbitohs. The winner of the Cowboys-Broncos game will take on the loser of the Bulldogs-Manly clash.