Local derbies between these two southern Sydney neighbours have always been intense, with more than a touch of niggle in them, and this encounter should be no different following the Sharks’ minor form reversal that has seen them claw up to 12th on the ladder.
The home side have won two of their past three games, against the Eels and Roosters, with a loss to the high-flying Broncos sandwiched in between. (The Roosters may have franked their form with a dominant win over the Storm last week.)
Meanwhile the competition-leading Dragons have won three of their past four, over the Warriors, Eels and Bulldogs, falling only to the Raiders in Canberra minus six Origin representatives in the lead-up to the first interstate clash.
Both sides are fully rested off the bye – although the Dragons will be sweating on the availability of Origin players Darius Boyd, Neville Costigan (Queensland), Brett Morris, Beau Scott, Michael Weyman and Ben Creagh (NSW).
Matt Cooper injured a hamstring in Origin; he’ll be replaced by young Kyle Stanley, who has two tries from his two NRL games this year.
Meanwhile Ricky Stuart will have his fingers crossed go-forward linchpin Paul Gallen (who escaped suspension with an early guilty plea following Origin) and playmaker Trent Barrett both pull up okay.
The Sharks have bitter memories of a 38-0 shutout at WIN Stadium just seven weeks ago in Round 8.
It’s a milestone weekend for Neville Costigan, who plays his 100th first grade game.
Watch out Sharks: The Shire side have made the fewest one-on-one tackles (40), which means they require players in numbers to generate their tackle effectiveness.
Against a red-hot attacking side like the Dragons, with an offloading expert like Beau Scott (23) in the centres, if they commit too many players to the tackle and the Dragons are able to selectively get some second-phase play going, it could be a long afternoon for the home side.
Watch out Dragons: Offloads figure here too – the Dragons need to do better than their average 12 offloads conceded per game (only ninth most effective in the comp).
But that looks a tall order given they’re coming up against prolific offloaders Paul Gallen (29, third in the NRL) and Anthony Tupou (28, fifth).
Clearly the Sharks will look to keep the ball alive.
Trent Barrett hasn’t got a great record against his former club and is yet to register a win, so he’ll have extra motivation. Barrett is still dangerous, as illustrated by his Origin recall. He’s particularly effective taking on the line and has managed 17 tackle busts so far with four try assists, four line-breaks and five line-break assists.
The Red V can expect Gallen to run at them all day – he averages 167 metres with 21 tackle busts.
Where it will be won: Wayne Bennett won’t be adjusting the game plan that’s seen his side cement top spot on the NRL ladder.
The Dragons will play a grinding, no-nonsense style with an emphasis on completing their sets (their 79 per cent rate is easily the best in the comp). This can’t help but earn them good field position, from where they’ll unleash their renowned left-side attack (40 of 51 scored have been from the centre of the field to the left touchline).
But Sharks coach Ricky Stuart may need to throw caution to the wind in a bid to upset such a disciplined opponent. Even if they better their 70 per cent completion rate, they will still battle to dominate the Dragons – especially given to date the Sharks have managed just 40 line-breaks, the second fewest in the comp (the Dragons rank seventh with 58).
Offloads could get them some busts – although to date that hasn’t occurred. And incredibly, for all their offloads (average 13.7 a game, second in the comp) they are the only side to not score a try from an offload!
No, Stuart needs an element of surprise if he’s to crack the Dragons – although they’ve only scored six tries from kicks, and the Dragons have leaked just three from the boot (fewest in the NRL), the Sharks may opt to target the wingers with a cross-field bomb. The Dragons have defused just 50 per cent of 18 kicks to date, but have been able to scramble and clean up the dregs.
Stuart could do worse than instruct Trent Barrett to go to the air often, and also maybe on tackle four, when in the Dragons’ attacking zone.
The history: Played 25; Sharks 13, Dragons 11, drawn 1. The honours are shared four wins apiece in their past four clashes, although the make-up of that stat is interesting – the Dragons have won the past three; before that, the Sharks strung together four wins in a row.
The home side holds a 7-3 advantage at Toyota Stadium.
Conclusion: Unsettling tactics are the Sharks’ only chance; it’s highly likely this game may be referred to as “spiteful” in post-match reviews.
The Sharks have a long climb back from the seven-try massacre in Round 7, where they completed just 55 per cent of their sets and failed to place their opponents under any pressure – the Dragons were runaway winners despite missing completions 30 per cent of the time!
But if they bustle the Dragons into error on their home patch, anything is possible. Just not likely.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Gavin Reynolds; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.