Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent
Eels v Sharks
Monday, 7pm (AEST)
Tick, tock. Tick, tock.
We're only a third of the way through the NRL season but the clock is truly ticking for both of Monday's combatants Parramatta and Cronulla.
The Sharks, last year's semi-finalists, take on last year's wooden-spooners in an attempt to recover from their disastrous start to the season. Considered a top four candidate in March, the Shiremen have bottomed out, losing six of their opening eight games due to myriad injuries and poor form.
Only fellow stragglers the Warriors have used more players than Cronulla, who have had key men Todd Carney, Paul Gallen, Jeff Robson, Anthony Tupou and Luke Lewis all on the sidelines at various stages through the year.
The good news is that the cavalry is slowly returning for interim coach Peter Sharp, and despite some obvious rust, the under-pressure outfit showed enough desperation to nab a last-ditch 24-20 victory over Penrith in Round 8 for just their second win of the year.
Nevertheless, the eighth-placed Panthers sit just two wins ahead of them, so the sun is still shining on their season... for now.
Parramatta, on the other hand, have had two weeks to dwell on back-to-back losses, the last of which was a 42-14 stinker in Townsville that left a stain on what, up to that point, had been an promising start to the season.
With a 4-4 record, the 11th-placed Eels are the last of seven teams on eight points due to a poor points differential. Jagging a win again the struggling Sharks should keep them in touch with the pack, but a loss would certainly curtail any momentum they had over the opening two months.
Cronulla, who are losing touch with that crowded mid-table, have thrown rugby league's version of a hail mary by inserting returning forward Luke Lewis into the No. 6 with Todd Carney out for a number of weeks with that troublesome hamstring. Lewis hasn't played since the crashing into the hoardings in England during the World Cup.
For the Eels, Jarryd Hayne, Tim Mannah, Nathan Peats and Manu Ma'u have all been named despite being ruled out through injury for their representative teams last weekend. They'll all be re-assessed closer to game day.
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Watch Out Eels: Together with the Wests Tigers, Cronulla have forced a league-leading 106 errors out of their opposition this year, giving them plenty of opportunities with the ball. And while they haven't exactly made teams pay – they've returned a league-low 111 points thus far in 2014 – you're flirting with danger if you're handing that much possession over, particularly to a team that has the game's best offloader in Andrew Fifita. The NSW prop is averaging almost four of them a game.
Watch Out Sharks: We've been waiting a while now for the bubble on Semi Radradra's ridiculous beard to burst, but forget it – with the kind of numbers he's posting up, the big fella – and his Abe Lincoln - is here to stay. The Fijian international leads the league in tries (10) and is among the best in line breaks (9). He's proven that he's not all 'show', either, contributing a handy 114 metres a game. Cronulla aren't that flash on the edges, so they'll have to be quick to get up on the Semi-trailer.
Plays To Watch: Parramatta's middle got off to a horrible start against the Cowboys a fortnight ago. It didn't matter which way the Townsville mob did it – short balls, inside passes, little dinks behind the line – there was plenty of space, and just as many tries. Expect Cronulla to test them again.
Cronulla will have to get creative without their maestro in Carney, and they showed a few avenues to the tryline in the second half of their win over Penrith. With the ball going to Robson's hands, there were at least three kicks that were intended for fullback Michael Gordon – and two resulted in meat pies. The former Origin winger will be a target for sure.
Where It Will Be Won: In Jeff Robson's hands. With Carney sidelined, the pressure will be on the lone playmaker to create points for a side that hasn't put up too many this season. The Eels will get theirs – it just depends if the Sharks can go with them.
The History: Played 83; Parramatta 40, Cronulla 43. Not much between the two sides in recent years, with the spoils split over their past eight games. The home side were victorious in last year's home-and-home series, the Eels scoring a close 13-6 win at Parramatta before going down 32-14 in the return bout later on in the year.
Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Chris Butler & Russell Turner; Video Referees – Ashley Klein & Henry Perenara.
Televised: FoxSports 1 – Live 7pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: The return of Lewis makes everyone in rugby league feel good, but in the No. 6? It's a tough assignment for the Australian representative, and while it's certainly not beyond his ability, Cronulla might need more than a Lewis-Robson halves pairing to outscore a giddy Eels outfit. Parramatta by eight points.