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Wests Tigers v Sharks
Leichhardt Oval
Saturday 7.30pm

You know when you’re walking somewhere, and you clip something with your feet – you stumble and go down, or you stumble and manage to regain balance and feel pretty proud as you go about your business, although a little embarrassed as you look back at the imaginary thing that must have jumped out of nowhere? It happens a lot – and after last weekend’s round it happened to three of the four top NRL sides.

But is it stumble-trip or stumble-save for the Wests Tigers after last weekend’s loss to Manly? If they can move forward without a dent in their confidence, it can be a stumble-save, but if they drop in intensity and fail to lift, it could be the start of a hefty stumble-trip. Remember, the side still need at least one more win to be looking at finals football and after this match their draw stiffens up against five tough contenders including the Storm.

The Tigers were travelling very nicely, winning three in a row and seven of their past eight before the Sea Eagles stopped them in their tracks. But thankfully for them they get the best chance to prove it was just a stumble-save when they come up against the lowly Sharks who are now officially out of finals contention after losing to Canberra.
It is almost a must-win match for the Tigers, as games against the Rabbitohs, Panthers, Eels, Storm and Titans follow to close out the year – arguably the toughest of all runs home.

They sit in fourth spot on the ladder but could move anywhere from second to sixth on the back of this result.

A loss could spiral them well and truly into the logjam for spots and place enormous pressure on the upcoming weeks.

They welcome Wade McKinnon, Beau Ryan, Gareth Ellis and Geoff Daniela back into the side. McKinnon slots into fullback with Daniel Fitzhenry out, Ryan comes onto the wing at the expense of Mitch Brown, while Ellis’ return in the second row sees Todd Payten shift up to prop and Bryce Gibbs revert back to the bench. Daniela comes onto the reserves list with John Skandalis and Mark Flanagan missing out.

The Sharks were unable to get a maiden win for Shane Flanagan against the Raiders last week officially ending their chances at finals football.

With just pride to play for, they have kept the same side, although Tim Smith has been added to an extended bench.

They cannot officially win the wooden spoon, as Melbourne already has it, but they don’t want to finish 15th either as this represents the “real” worst team in the NRL. Currently they are in this slot behind the Cowboys on differential.

Watch out Wests Tigers: Paul Gallen knows the finals are out of reach for his side but he now desires a spot in the Four Nations squad and knows he only has limited time to remain in the selectors’ vision.

He has been a one-man wrecking crew as usual and is the only NRL player averaging in excess of 10 runs, 100 metres and 30 tackles a game. His triple-threat numbers are astounding, with his average 21.7 runs netting an average 170 metres to go with his 34.4 tackles.

He is offloading in traffic brilliantly – yet still for all money can’t find a way to break the line on his own! Maybe this is the week; otherwise he’ll be heading to Martin Lang territory. Lang has the record for most runs without a break at 475; Gallen is now at 369 – this alone might fire him up further!

Watch out Sharks: The Wests Tigers’ pack looks pretty damn solid on paper with its subtle changes this week and if this translates to on-field performance, the Sharks could get rolled up the middle.

With Gallen and young gun props Kade Snowden and Luke Douglas, the Cronulla pack is more than solid but the return of Gareth Ellis to the Tigers’ second row, paired with the in-form Liam Fulton and Chris Heighington plus Robbie Farah, Keith Galloway and the skilful Todd Payten up front, their balance looks just about right.

The unlucky man here is Bryce Gibbs, who will start from the bench, but with Gibbs and Andrew Fafita coming from the sidelines the Tigers have some real impact and can maintain the rage throughout the 80 minutes.

Without getting ahead of ourselves, this looks like a potential premiership-winning combo.

Where it will be won: Kicking in this clash will be crucial. Chip kicks, bombs, cross-field kicks and even goal kicks are going to hold plenty of sway.

Benji Marshall is kicking goals at just 61 per cent – that needs to lift. But as far as defusing attacking kicks goes, both teams struggle big time, so both will try to outdo the other at attacking the weakness.

The Wests Tigers are the worst in the NRL at defusing chip kicks, stopping just 50 per cent. The Sharks are the next worst in the league at just 57 per cent. Consequently we can smell a Trent Barrett and Benji Marshall chip-and-chase coming.

The Sharks are the worst in the league at defusing bombs (just 57 per cent) but the Tigers are no ‘locks’ under the high ball either (68 per cent).

When it comes to cross-field kicks it’s almost like liquid gold for the attacking side. The Sharks successfully defuse just 38 per cent of these kicks, the Tigers just a little better at 48 per cent.

The side that can get a better grip on the hoisted or rolling ball will go a long way towards winning this match.

The history: Played 18; Wests Tigers 12, Sharks 5, drawn 1. The Wests Tigers have won seven of the past eight against the Sharks but the lone Cronulla win did come the last time the two teams met at Leichhardt Oval back in 2008 when they hammered the Tigers 32-6.

Interestingly enough this is a record margin for the Sharks over the Wests Tigers and the only other match played since then resulted in a record Wests Tigers win over Cronulla, a 56-10 belting last season.
In the four matches at this venue the teams have split them two apiece.

Conclusion: This is a game the Wests Tigers need to win for confidence alone. It is a win that can get them onto the magic number and a win that can spur them into the tough road ahead.

Despite their loss last week you probably have to tip them, as the Sharks just don’t have the firepower. They will be competitive and try hard, but no doubt pull up short.

Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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