Sharks v Storm Preview

Sharks v Storm
Toyota Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Saturday night football in the Shire is a bit of a staple for the locals – and they couldn’t ask for a much tougher test than facing the reigning NRL and newly crowned world club champions first up.

But if we know Sharks coach Ricky Stuart at all (and here at NRL.com HQ we feel we do), we know he will be using the massive task as a major motivational ploy for his boys to come out firing and make a statement.

Having almost finished 2009 with a wooden spoon, the Sharks are up against it in 2010 according to most critics. But within the club itself there is plenty of optimism.

The Storm may well be a bit battle-weary from the trip to England and as such this represents a chance for the Sharks to ambush them.

Trial form for Cronulla consisted of an 18-4 loss to Manly followed by a 36-12 loss to the Wests Tigers, so it will take some improvement to take down Melbourne, who warmed up with an early 24-12 loss to Brisbane before beating the Harlequins in London and Leeds in the World Club Challenge.

The Storm will field the same side who prevailed in England, with the addition of Ryan Tandy and Bryan Norrie to an extended bench.

This means Luke MacDougall and Anthony Quinn have bagged the wings spots to start the year, while Cameron Smith will play at halfback while Cooper Cronk remains out injured.

The Sharks have stuck with the Scott Porter-Trent Barrett halves combination, with Albert Kelly making the bench. John Morris will play hooker with new boys Adam Cuthbertson, Josh Cordoba and Paul Aiton also on the bench.

Worrying for the Shire boys is that Storm have not lost a Round 1 clash since 2001.

Watch out Sharks: By Billy Slater standards, the sensational fullback had a quiet match over in Leeds and with more and more talk about Jarryd Hayne being wasted on the wing in rep teams Slater will want to continue his red hot form to hold the spot for the early season Test match. Even leaving out the finals from last year’s stats (which is unfair to Slater as he was amazing throughout the finals also) he tallied an average 122 metres gained, made 17 line-breaks, 19 line-break assists, 11 tries and 19 try assists. He also had a whopping 134 tackle breaks for good measure.

With the ‘downtown’ rule being enforced, the Sharks better aim either over his head to kick the ball dead, or aim for the wingers – otherwise Slater could be ready to pummel them.

Watch out Storm: There has been plenty of subtle hype around Sharks centre Blake Ferguson. He certainly provides much-needed pace to the Sharks’ backline and his 10 line-breaks and nine tries last year were certainly respectable.

But we hear he has taken a big step forward in development over the off-season (we can believe it, especially after the way he dug in during the All Stars game) and could be the go-to man in the Sharks’ line-up.

If he can find a good combination with Trent Barrett the Storm might actually have something to worry about. Ferguson also notched up 84 tackle breaks in 2009, showing he can bust through a tackle as well as make clean breaks.

Where it will be won: Creativity. The Sharks will probably try to bring the speed and intensity of the match down a peg but the Storm are experts in an arm wrestle so they could be fruitless tactics.

Essentially this match will boil down to some creativity by a playmaker or individual… a line-break here and there, and a team’s ability to finish off the break. This, if last years stats are anything to go by, means massive danger for the Sharks.

Melbourne had 117 line-breaks in the regular season last year, which had them ranked fourth in the NRL, while the Sharks only broke the line on 81 occasions to be ranked dead last. Trent Barrett must conjure up some breaks, or his side will be toast.

Cameron Smith proved he can cut it as a halfback in the World Club Challenge and he still has Brett Finch and Greg Inglis to help him create breaks. Someone in the Cronulla jersey needs to help Barrett, or the competition points will be heading south.

The History: Played 20; Sharks 8, Storm 12. The Storm have won four of the past five matches between the clubs and even hold a slender advantage in Cronulla, with five wins to the Sharks’ four at the venue.

The two sides only met once last season, with the Storm prevailing 30-10 in Melbourne.

Conclusion:
This is probably the most obvious game to tip in the opening round on paper, with the Storm being heavy favourites – and rightfully so. However, as Storm coach Craig Bellamy pointed out, many sides fire up for their first home game of the season and if Melbourne come in complacent, it isn’t beyond the realms of possibility for Cronulla to start with a win.

You will be with the majority if you tip Melbourne, but if you tip the Sharks and they come up trumps, you will probably be taking an early lead in your competition.

Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Henry Perenara; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live from 7.30pm.