Nicholas Jazen, NRL.com
Dragons v Sharks
Cronulla have everything to play for in this clash – but arch-enemies St George Illawarra would love to win and halt their local rivals’ progression to the Finals series.
The 14th-placed Dragons side, buoyed by the injection of confidence from new fullback Josh Dugan, have been more than competitive the past month, beating South Sydney in Round 19 (22-18) before suffering close losses to the Raiders (22-18), Bulldogs (39-20 in a game where they unravelled late) and Broncos (26-24), matches which at various stages they looked on track to win.
The Sharks, meanwhile, have proven difficult to beat in the past six weeks. Sure, they were hammered by the Roosters (40-0) in Round 19 and fell short at the death to the Knights last weekend (18-14), but along the way they’ve arm-wrestled to wins against the Tigers (36-22), Broncos (19-18), Panthers (38-10) and Warriors (18-14), too.
A win for the lowly Dragons here puts them well out of wooden spoon territory (they’re currently on 16 competition points, just four above the cellar-dwelling Eels), while a victory for the Sharks keeps their top-eight – and indeed top-four – chances alive.
The news for Dragons fans isn’t great on the injury front – they’ll be without Dugan and influential forward Trent Merrin for this game… and the rest of the season. (Talk about a double whammy!) As a result, it’s a reshuffled side for this week’s clash in Wollongong. Jason Nightingale moves from wing to fullback to cover Dugan’s absence, with Chase Stanley taking over from Nathan Green in the centres and Charly Runciman coming onto one wing. Jack de Belin has been named in the No.13 jersey to replace Merrin, with Will Matthews added to the bench. The Dragons will take the field in a special Red V jersey to help celebrate Close the Gap Round.
Cronulla, meanwhile, welcome back Beau Ryan and Anthony Tupou to the NRL after extended lay-offs through injury. That good news is tempered however by the loss of fiery back-rower Wade Graham, who’s succumbed to a shoulder injury and will be out for one week. Ryan has been named on the wing in place of Nathan Stapleton, with Tupou named on a five-man interchange bench.
Up for grabs this week is the Monty Porter Cup, named in honour of Cronulla’s first captain and a man who also played a leading role for the Dragons during their 11 consecutive premierships in the 1950s and 1960s.
Watch Out Dragons: Have St George Illawarra simply lost the ability to win games when they’re in a good position? It hasn’t been a great season for the Dragons by any stretch of the imagination – but had they won the close matches it’d be a whole different story. Steve Price’s men have lost six games this season by six points or less. Had they won those matches they could have found themselves as high up the ladder as fifth! They need to find a way to hang in there or the Sharks will steal the prize.
Watch Out Sharks: Last time Cronulla won in Wollongong, some of the current line-up hadn’t even been born... or thought of! They haven’t won at the venue since 1989. It’s a big hoodoo for the Sharkies, who haven’t won in their past 10 matches at WIN Stadium, either. It’s the third-longest active losing streak of any team at any venue. And they’ve lost seven of their past nine overall clashes with the Dragons, too.
Plays To Watch: There’s reason to think this could well be a free-flowing affair – both the Dragons and Sharks will be backing their attacks given their play in recent weeks.
Following the Broncos’ win against St George Illawarra, Cronulla would have taken notice of Brisbane’s four-pointers and the Dragons’ lack of edge defence and communication out wide – look for the Sharks, especially Todd Carney, to direct traffic there to force the home side to make defensive decisions.
The Dragons, though, will be backing themselves to score points – Adam Quinlan, in particular, has looked dangerous in recent weeks and will be the focus of their offensive gameplan. Look for runners off his left shoulder.
Key Match-Up: The weakened Dragons forward pack really needs to step up here. Missing Merrin, it’s up to the young guns – and the young at heart – to lay the foundation for their backs to utilise some creative space. So much depends on Ben Creagh and Michael Weyman – if they rise to the challenge of leading their pack in to battle against the likes of Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Andrew Fifita and Anthony Tupou, it’ll go a long way to helping the home side to victory. It won’t be easy, though – the Sharks are one of the strongest metre-eating sides in the competition: they average 1418.4 metres per game (third in the NRL) and aren’t easily stopped.
Where It Will Be Won: Without Dugan, the Dragons are missing a key attacking ace – and the considerable slack falls directly in the hands of his replacement, Jason Nightingale. The Kiwi international is a big threat in his own right, but he’ll need to be at his best to match Dugan’s impact in recent weeks – the former Raider sparked his new side into life, resulting in the side scoring 28 per cent of their total points this season in the past month! If Nightingale goes close to matching Dugan’s output, the home side are in this clash up to their eyeballs.
The History: Played 31; Dragons 15, Sharks 15, drawn 1. It doesn’t get much tighter than that!
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Luke Phillips; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Paul Mellor & Luke Patten.
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Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: This match-up is an intriguing battle – and it should prove one heck of an arm-wrestle. The Dragons love holding onto record-breaking winning streaks but the Sharks should be able to get over the top of them on this occasion, especially when they’re missing Origin stars Dugan and Merrin. Cronulla by eight points.
* Statistics: NRL Stats