Cronulla Sharks v St George Illawarra Dragons
“Same old Sharks” – not the three words Cronulla fans want to hear from their coach early in 2011 but that was Shane Flanagan’s frank assessment of his team’s dire 40-12 loss to the Raiders last week.
The defeat relegated the Sharks to 15th place on the NRL ladder and this week they face the World Club Champions and 2010 premiers, who got the job done against the Gold Coast in typical clinical style in Round 1.
The Sharks started out OK in the nation’s capital, posting first points and looking urgent enough… but then compounded in the face of the exuberant locals who scored 22 points in 23 minutes to have the issue pretty much beyond doubt at halftime.
Their frustrations boiled over when interchange Paul Aiton was sent off for a head-butt late in proceedings – he became only the second player this century (joining Sonny Bill Williams, 2007) to be marched in a first-round game.
Their only personnel changes involve their bench, with Stuart Flanagan and Ben Pomeroy warming the pine, joined by Johnny Mannah (No.18) and Taulima Tautai (No.20).
For the Dragons, lock/rotation hooker Dean Young remains sidelined with a knee injury, which sees rookie rake Mitch Rein retained in their 17.
The home side will be buoyed by the fact their four biggest wins over the Red V have all occurred at home at Toyota Stadium.
Watch Out Sharks: Dragons centre Matt Cooper, who notched 200 NRL games last week, has scored 102 tries for the Red V. But he’s scored just six tries in 16 games against his southern neighbours – and incredibly has never crossed the tryline at Toyota Stadium! With the Dragons’ left-side attack looking crisp and potent again, this could be a breakout game for the veteran.
Danger Sign: Jamie Soward appears to have his kicking game right on the money early in the season. Soward made three try assists last week – two from kicks with fullback Darius Boyd the recipient of a try double. If Soward gets results early he tends to grow with confidence. The Sharks need to watch for the well-directed chip over the defensive line from close range, with Boyd chasing through.
Watch Out Dragons: There were no hard feelings when Jeremy Smith left the Dragons at the end of last year – but that doesn’t mean he won’t be intent on inflicting a world of pain on his former team-mates. Smith is a follow-me kind of player who will rip in here, no risk.
Interestingly Smith has a standout record against the Dragons, having been on the winning side for Melbourne in four of five games. He was a bit scratchy against the Raiders, making just seven runs and 51 metres with an error, two offloads and 24 tackles. But the occasion should ensure he lifts.
And the last forward to leave the Dragons’ cave for the Sharks? That was Lance Thompson back in 2007 – he scored a try in his first game against his former team, contributing to the Shark’s all-time biggest win over the Red V.
Danger Sign: The Dragons need to watch energetic fullback Nathan Gardner, who showed a willingness to chime in like a sucker Shark running the inside angle last week. It resulted in a try and he had another disallowed. The Dragons’ fringe defenders must be alert.
Plays To Watch: Paul Gallen, Kade Snowden and Jeremy Smith taking it to the Dragons all game, but in particular in the opening exchanges; Gardner making inroads from the back; the Sharks promoting offloads (13 last week) to crack the Dragons’ steely line; Ben Creagh (16 runs, 133 metres) charging at the Sharks’ left edge; the Dragons’ outside backs making run on run from dummy-half (18 last week).
Where It Will Be Won: We’re going to sound like a broken record, but field position. Last week the Titans made more metres across the ground than the Dragons (1380 to 1160) but Jamie Soward’s prodigious and accurate boot (15 kicks for 550 metres) strangled the life out of the Titans. If the Dragons manage a 70 per cent-plus completion (75 per cent last week) and the Sharks’ rushing defence is unable to bustle Soward into error, there’s not much hope for the home side.
That said, the Sharks did manage to match it with the Raiders in the metres department last week – their 1034 metres was just six paces short of their opponents – largely due to massive metres from Gallen (153) and Snowden (130). The Sharks’ backline looks totally outclassed, so it will fall to their forwards to pave the way here.
The History: Played 26; Sharks 13, Dragons 12, drawn 1. A bit of a surprise but the Sharks have been a razor-sharp tooth in the side of the Red V since the joint venture’s formation. Still, the Dragons have won the past four games between the sides; before that the Sharks won four on the trot.
The Sharks have an excellent record at Toyota Stadium, winning seven of the 11 games played there, including their biggest win over the Dragons, a 40-4 pasting in 2007.
Conclusion: It would take a brave fan indeed to back against the Dragons. They’ll win comfortably. Sorry Shire fans, but it’s the visitors by 16.
Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Adam Gee; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.