Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent
Dragons v Sharks
Saturday, 7.30pm (AEST)
There's nothing we can say that will hide the dismal seasons St George Illawarra and Cronulla are having this year. Nor do we want to sugar-coat anything in times like these.
It was only a couple of months ago that these two clubs put on one of those classic local derbies, one which literally turned rugby league on its head with a Brett Morris spectacular that would've made the Cirque du Soleil choreographers proud.
But since then, things have turned so sour – so ugly – for these neighbourhood rivals that some have already carved the tombstones on their respective 2014 seasons.
Still, while ever there is hope – and that trusty NRL ladder predictor proves to you that there is – then you cling onto that for dear life and hope the sun is still shining on the other side.
Cronulla are clearly the worst-placed of the two, having sunk all the way to the bottom of the pit with a 2-9 record and an injury list as long as Todd Carney's tattoo sleeve.
Their abominable 18-0 flunk against South Sydney two weeks ago wasn't as bad as their casualty ward post-game, one which now houses first grade regulars Paul Gallen (neck), Jeff Robson (hamstring), Anthony Tupou (ribs), Andrew Fifita (ankle), Todd Carney (hamstring), Ricky Leutele (knee), Sosaia Feki (hamstring), Jonathan Wright (hamstring) and Beau Ryan (neck).
Jacob Gagan and Fa'amanu Brown get their first grade initiations here, while Nathan Gardner sees his first NRL action in 2014 as well.
Their counterparts on Saturday evening don't exactly have the same excuse. New coach Paul McGregor found out quickly that shifting positions doesn't exactly shift form after his side's lacklustre 29-10 defeat to the Rabbitohs last Monday.
Still, the second-gamer will trot out almost an identical side this weekend, save for the inclusion of forwards Jack de Belin and Mike Cooper on the bench.
We can't guarantee that the game in Wollongong will be a hell raiser, nor can we even promise you that one of these two will kick on for a finals push.
But we can assure both sets of fans one thing: one of you will come out a winner, and it'll be enough for you to pull out that calculator again last thing before turning in for the night on Saturday.
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Watch Out Dragons: Viewers might remember the jack-in-the-box in the Cronulla jersey at the Auckland Nines earlier this year who turned heads with his sublime footwork and breakneck speed. The Sharks have let go of some promising young talents in the past two years, but debutant five-eighth Fa'amanu Brown is one they surely can't let go of. It hasn't been a fun season for the Shiremen, but keep an eye on this kid: he'll have you jumping off your seats from the get-go.
Watch Out Sharks: They don't exactly look like the Harlem Globetrotters in attack, but at least they're holding the football. If there's any positive to take out of the Dragons' ball use so far in 2014, it's that they rank in the top five in fewest errors. If they can sustain any sort of pressure against the third worst defensive side in the league, then they're more than half a chance of winning.
Plays To Watch: The timing's a bit off, and the passes aren't exactly sticking, but it's clear Benji Marshall is doing his best to get his signature show-and-go up and running in the Red V. It's not exactly running like clockwork yet, but give it some time folks. It's only been a few weeks.
Speaking of veteran plays, Sharks lock Chris Heighington seems to have found his famed hit-and-spin that he built his career on in the late 2000s. With an entirely new spine to play with, it's difficult to say how much of the playbook was thrown out with an almost entirely new spine, but after hitting season-highs in hit-ups and metres last week, expect the old fella to try to put his stamp on the game.
Get your ticket to NRL Round 13Where It Will Be Won:
Desperation. In times like these, rarely does a struggling team click into gear and get victory handed to them by the fairy pointsmother. The winner will likely get these two points ugly, tough and with more than a smidgen of blood, sweat and tears painted across their faces. But they'll walk away the prettiest.
The History: Played 34; St George Illawarra 16, Cronulla 16, drawn 2. Winners of three of their past four, the Dragons pipped the Sharks 14-12 in Cronulla back in Round 3 when winger Brett Morris defied gravity to land one of the tries of the season that many joked would've gotten him in hot water with the match review committee, such was the dangerous position he was in. Morris bagged two that night, condemning Cronulla to the third loss in as many games to start the year.
What Are The Odds: More than six times the interest in the Dragons in this one with Sportsbet.com.au ($1.57 in from $1.79). The Sharks are relatively friendless ($2.35 out from $2.02). Punters are happy to take the Dragons -4.5 as well., however the Red V 1-12 is the most popular selection in the winning margin market.
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Paul Mellor.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: Both coaches have dipped right into their banks of youth to try to revitalise their aging teams. But we're going to go with the team with the most experienced spine – and in front of his new home fans, Benji Marshall might get his first victory back in league.
*Statistics: Champion Data