Time is well and truly up for the Sharks if they don’t embark on a winning run starting this weekend, while the Eels know that if they are to make a challenge for the finals they need to do what every other team to play the Sharks has done this year… win.
Both teams have been having far from impressive seasons but at least the Eels have scrambled for a few results here and there and have moved themselves into 12th spot on the NRL ladder, just two wins out of the top eight.
The Sharks, on the other hand, have had zero joy since Round 1, losing nine straight games amongst a tsunami of off-field dramas and another loss here would equal the club record of 10 in a row (set back in 2006 between rounds 17 and 26).
They sit anchored to last place, two wins behind their nearest rivals, and they would probably need to win at least 11 of their final 14 matches to make a highly improbable finals appearance. The bigger probability is their first wooden spoon since 1969, unless they get something going soon.
Cronulla coach Ricky Stuart has finally wielded the axe, dumping centre Ben Pomeroy, hooker Corey Hughes and halfback Blake Green but he has also lost fullback Bronx Goodwin to injury as well as New South Wales representative and team captain – at least for the time being – Paul Gallen.
Nathan Stapleton will play fullback, Matthew Wright comes in at centre, debutant Scott Porter is slated to play halfback, Tony Caine comes in at hooker and Atelea Vea will start in the second row. Jacob Selmes and Mitch Brown have been added to the bench.
The Eels also have some forced changes.
Jarryd Hayne has joined Blues’ camp which means Luke Burt goes from wing to fullback and Etu Uaisele pushes onto the wing.
Ben Smith returns at centre after Krisnan Inu took a two-week suspension on the chin and Nathan Cayless returns to prop, which sees Josh Cordoba relegated to the bench and Jeremy Latimore miss out. Once again rookie Daniel Mortimer has been added to an extended bench giving him a chance at making his debut.
Watch out Eels: With new faces comes new enthusiasm, something the Sharks desperately need.
The side is devoid of confidence and seemingly ideas on just how to win games – and even score points. The last thing the Eels should be doing is feeling over-confident. Regardless of their form the Sharks are still a first grade side and still have players of the calibre of Trent Barrett and Anthony Tupou in the line-up.
Scott Porter has not proven a prodigy by any means but the 24-year-old will no doubt lift when given his chance in the top grade. Having Barrett outside him will give the freedom to play his natural game and showcase his ability. As an unknown he creates uncertainty for the Eels’ defence and that will either free him up to do as he pleases (if the Eels feel he isn’t a weapon) or free up Barrett and co (if the Eels feel he needs some extra attention as a rookie).
Watch out Sharks: Winger Eric Grothe was impressive when returning to the Eels’ line-up last weekend. After a scratchy season last year Grothe seems like he is getting his game back to its damaging best – and that could spell trouble for the Sharks.
He is averaging 109 metres gained a match and has four line breaks from his seven matches. He also has four tries and has broken 26 tackles.
Grothe’s ability to take dummy-half runs as an extra forward makes him particularly valuable as does the fact he is virtually unstoppable one-on-one from close to the line.
With improvements in his defensive decision making also developing, the Eels have a weapon out wide to cover for the absent Hayne.
Where it will be won: Across the ground. Neither team is playing well enough to do anything other than focus on basics, so field position and possession is the key.
The sides just need to start by making the hard yards across the ground, treasuring possession and trying to build an advantage in field position.
The Eels have the edge in this regard, as they have been averaging 1367 metres gained per match this year, while the Sharks have managed just 1214 metres a game. This is with Paul Gallen averaging 142 of those on his own – and he won’t be taking the field!
The Eels are also averaging fewer errors than the Sharks, giving them more possession, so the task remains for the Sharks to up their discipline.
Parramatta will miss Hayne’s contribution, no question. He is averaging 140 metres (328 last week!) but more importantly he is the only real attacking weapon the Eels have had in 2008, courtesy of his 12 line breaks and nine tries.
The History: Played 69; Eels 33, Sharks 36. The Sharks have won the past two matches between the clubs, with the Eels’ last win coming in 2006. The Sharks actually lead Parramatta 10-7 in head-to-head games at Parramatta Stadium and have won the past three games at the venue between the clubs. The last time the Eels beat the Sharks at home was the infamous 74-4 win in 2003.
Conclusion: How can you have the confidence to tip the Sharks? Well, you can’t, so just don’t do it.
They don’t deserve it. Sure, they are in a two-horse race but think of it as risk v reward – the likelihood is they’ll lose again and 99 per cent of fans will tip against them. So if they do manage an upset, well you haven’t really lost any ground in your tipping comp.
If you tip them and they lose as expected… the entire world just got a free jump on you.
Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Mohamad Fajajo; Video Ref – Russell Smith.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.