Nigel Wall, NRL.com
Cronulla Sutherland Sharks v Gold Coast Titans
Long-suffering fans in the Shire will have their fingers crossed that their team’s recent bumpy ride is the result of just a shallow pothole on their road to a spot high up in the top eight.
Following consecutive losses to the Bulldogs and Eels, the Sharks find themselves sitting in sixth place at the midpoint of the season. A month ago they held sole possession of second place on the NRL ladder; they are now in a logjam of five sides on 16 competition points.
Cronulla’s nerve is certain to be tested again this week, up against the resurgent Titans who have won three on the trot to catapult back into semi-finals reckoning. John Cartwright’s men, wooden spoon candidates when the Sharks were at their peak a month ago, now sit in 10th place but just one win outside the top eight. They have shown grit and substance in their wins over the Bulldogs, Knights and Cowboys, with blockbusting centre Jamal Idris starting to up his involvement and rookie five-eighth Aidan Sezer impressing and growing in confidence every week.
Meanwhile the Sharks were ambushed by a committed Eels outfit last Monday night. With the knives out for their coach Stephen Kearney and also some of their under-achieving players, the Eels defied Cronulla’s early ascendancy to storm home convincing winners.
However, Sharks coach Shane Flanagan will be disappointed with the lack of intensity they showed in the second half and will have impressed upon his roster the fine line between playing in the semi-finals and watching from the stands.
The shame this week is that both outfits will be weakened by key Origin absentees: Paul Gallen and Todd Carney for the Sharks; and Nate Myles, Greg Bird and Ashley Harrison for the Titans.
Cronulla struggled without their star duo when they lost to the Bulldogs the weekend before Origin I, while the Titans had the luxury of the bye. This match-up will be their toughest test yet as they set about registering a fourth win in a row – especially given they will also be without prop Luke Bailey who injured his ribs in last week’s win over the Cowboys.
With Carney missing Chad Townsend makes his 2012 debut in the Sharks’ No.6, with Wade Graham covering for Paul Gallen at lock. Sam Tagataese and Jon Green have been added to their extended interchange.
Meanwhile John Cartwright has named Brenton Lawrence and Matt White to start at prop (for Bailey and Myles) with Luke Douglas to start in the second row (for Greg Bird). Luke O’Dwyer is Ashley Harrison’s substitute at lock.
In a huge boost, boom forward Ryan James has been named to make his 2012 debut after a long layoff with injury, with Michael Henderson and Steve Michaels the other new faces on their interchange bench.
It’s a huge game for Sharks centre Colin Best who suits up for his 250th NRL game (and 114th in Sharks colours).
Watch Out Sharks: Cronulla need to avoid frustration and keep composed against a Titans defence that has stunned their opponents recently. In fact, the Gold Coast rank behind only the Storm for defensive efforts over the past month, surrendering just 13.3 points a game.
The Sharks need to be sure about passing long and wide from the ruck – Scott Prince leads the league for intercepts and will be sniffing around for an easy kill all night.
Luke Douglas returns to the Shire to face the Sharks for the first time. The former Toyota Stadium fan favourite has scored seven tries at the venue and secured 31 wins. He’ll be pumped for some landmark figures this Sunday: Douglas requires just one more run and tackle to record a personal milestone of 2000 career runs and 5000 tackles.
Danger Sign: The Sharks showed an alarming drop in intensity in the second half of their clash with the Eels and if they repeat that performance here they’ll get burned. Cronulla missed just five tackles in the opening 40 minutes against Parra – but missed a staggering 25 in the second 40. Shane Flanagan will be demanding better.
Watch Out Titans: The Sharks will present a huge threat offloading on both edges. They rank second overall in 2012, with 13.3 a game. Their centres Ben Pomeroy and Colin Best have combined for 37 offloads so far – the most by any centre pairing. The Titans concede the fifth-most offloads (11.5). Also, Pomeroy and Best lead the NRL for line-breaks among centres, with a combined 11.
Hooker Isaac De Gois will need to be watched when he runs a lateral line out of dummy-half from close range – his deception put Colin Best over last Monday night.
The Titans need to be mindful of trailing supports – the Sharks have tallied 548 support plays so far, second only to North Queensland.
Danger Sign: If the Sharks target the right side of the field you’ll know they sense weakness given the Titans have leaked 20 tries on that edge compared to just 10 via their right-side defence. Also, the Titans have conceded 12 tries around their goal-posts, the second most to date.
Aidan Sezer v Chad Townsend: It’s the battle of the rookie (Sezer) versus the near-rookie, (Townsend) with these playmakers tallying just 17 NRL games between them (Townsend 11, Sezer six). It’s no coincidence the Titans’ winning streak coincides with the emergence of Sezer as a force at five-eighth. In their wins over the Bulldogs and the Knights he ran a total of 20 times but was more reserved last week up against Johnathan Thurston, running just once and leaving the majority of the decision-making to Scott Prince. But no question he’ll test out his inexperienced opposite with more runs this week. Meanwhile big things are expected from Townsend; he played exclusively at halfback in 2011 so much will depend on his ability to slot in at pivot, obviously a key role for the Sharks given Carney’s input.
Where It Will Be Won: Discipline with the football. This clash brings together the two worst sides at committing errors, with the Titans bottom of the barrel with 12.3 mistakes each week, closely followed by the Sharks with 11.8. While the Titans got away with surrendering the Cowboys a mountain of possession early on last week, they won’t want to push their luck a second week running. Whichever side shows more composure and completes their sets will win.
The History: Played 8; Sharks 4, Titans 4. Cronulla boast a 3-1 advantage in games played in the Shire – although the Titans won the last meeting there (see below). Also, the Sharks secured their biggest win over the Gold Coast in 2011, winning 36-12 at Skilled Park (Round 16).
The Last Time They Met: The Titans beat the Sharks 20-16 at Toyota Stadium in Round 22 last year in a clash that featured arguably the best pick-up to score in the history of the game.
Titans winger David Mead opened the scoring in the third minute when he latched onto a Jordan Rankin cut-out pass to dive over in the right corner, with Scott Prince converting from the sideline for a 4-nil lead.
Cronulla drew level when hooker John Morris darted out of dummy-half 10 metres out from the Titans goal line and dummied his way over. The Titans edged ahead when Scott Prince piloted over a penalty goal before the star halfback combined with Mead for a truly highlights reel moment: in the 35th minute from a play-the-ball on the left edge the Titans spread the ball right, with Prince chipping for the right corner post for his flying winger. The kick looked like it had too much weight on it and was heading over the sideline before Mead snatched it one-handed on the half-volley just a metre out, then grounded for a miraculous try and a 12-4 lead at the break.
The Sharks pulled to within two points with a Nathan Stapleton penalty goal soon after the resumption before William Zillman took advantage of a quick play-the-ball to charge over from first receiver for the Titans to extend their lead to 18-6.
Ben Pomeroy bridged the deficit to 18-12 in the 53rd minute before another Scott Prince penalty goal gave the visitors breathing space with 18 minutes remaining.
A try to Sharks winger Ricky Leutele with three minutes remaining gave Sharks fans hope but the Titans held firm.
It was a stellar effort by the Titans – they were savaged in the penalty count (10-3) and had to make a massive 98 more tackles than the home side. Cronulla tried to run their opponents off their feet, making a whopping 21 offloads and seven line-breaks.
The Titans were well-served by David Mead and back-rower Mark Minichiello (12 runs for 125 metres plus a game-high seven tackle busts) while fullback Isaac Gordon ran 235 metres for the Sharks.
Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.
The Way We See It: The Titans have the momentum but the Sharks are better than their past fortnight. It all boils down to which side can cover for the loss of their Origin stars better. We’ll tip the Titans to continue their streak, by four points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats