Sharks v Sea Eagles preview

Cronulla Sharks v Manly Sea Eagles
Toyota Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

The “battle of the beaches” is on again and is set to light up this Saturday night Heritage Round clash between two bitter rivals.

Although none of the current squad is old enough to remember it, the boys from the Shire are bred to hold a grudge against the silvertails from the northern beaches in a rivalry forged in two of the most brutal grand finals ever played.

The Sea Eagles prevailed in the 1973 and 78 deciders (the latter in a replay after the first was drawn) and the Sharks are still waiting on their first premiership more than three decades later.

It all adds a bit of extra spark to a clash where neither team should be searching for extra inspiration – both teams lost close matches last weekend in games they will feel they could have won if they had taken a few extra opportunities.

For the Sea Eagles, classy young halfback Daly Cherry-Evans missed a sideline conversion against the Rabbitohs that would have sent the match to golden point after Manly seemed dead and buried 15 minutes earlier, while the Sharks led going into the second half before falling away.

Those results left both teams hovering around the top eight cut-off mark on for-and-against, with two wins from four starts, and desperate to clamber into the upper half of the draw.

Sharks coach Shane Flanagan has the luxury of continuity on his side as his team amazingly go into a third straight week unchanged. Dean Collis and Taulima Tautai feature on an extended bench.

Manly coach Des Hasler has no such luxury after the club fined and suspended Anthony Watmough and Terence Seuseu for one game each for disciplinary reasons. Brett Stewart has been named after withdrawing late from last week’s match with a hamstring twinge and Steve Matai is finally available after serving out a lengthy ban for his shot on Bulldog Michael Ennis late last year.

Stewart takes his place at fullback with Will Hopoate going back to the wing. Michael Oldfield is the man to make way, while Matai starts at centre allowing Jamie Buhrer to take Watmough’s place in the back row. George Rose and Tony Williams have been added to the bench, with David Williams not yet recovered from a knee injury.

Watch Out Sharks: Young Will Hopoate has been on fire so far in 2011. The son of club legend John Hopoate has scored four tries in as many games, including one at the death last week as Manly almost clawed their way to a miraculous victory over Souths.

He deputised admirably at fullback for Stewart in that game but has been just as damaging on the wing, where his work rate has been amazing.

His 63 hit-ups are eighth most in the NRL, and third most behind Ashley Graham (72) and Anthony Minichiello (64) amongst backs. He is also eighth in the competition for metres gained (138 per match) and dummy-half runs (21, at 12.7 metres per run). If all eyes are on Brett Stewart – as they usually are – Hopoate will run the Cronulla backs ragged with surging dummy-half spurts and bustling kick-returns.

Danger Sign: Every time Brett Stewart brings back a kick-return watch for Hopoate to scoot in to dummy-half and put any lazy chasers on the back foot.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: The 2011 Sharks are playing much better as a unit so far than we’ve seen in recent seasons. But the standout – unsurprisingly – is tireless back-rower Paul Gallen. The burly lock’s attacking stats are phenomenal after four rounds: he leads the league in hit-ups (88) and running metres (an incredible 175 per game so far), is equal third in offloads (11) and has three line-breaks assists to boot.

What’s perhaps more amazing is that these stats aren’t even an improvement over his 2010 performances – Gallen averaged 176 metres per game in 2010, suggesting he can keep this up all year. With the likes of Jeremy Smith and Anthony Tupou providing extra backbone the Cronulla forward pack could make the difference in the big matches.

Danger Sign: Gallen running at the line, Gallen fending, Gallen looking to offload… in fact any time Gallen has the ball Manly better watch out because there’s every chance they’ll be backpedalling by the time they’ve completed their next tackle.

Plays To Watch: Crunching defence from a fired-up Steve Matai; prolific offloading from Gallen and Tupou; smooth support running from Brett Stewart; John Williams to finally nail his first-ever try against Manly; dummy half darts from Will Hopoate, Albert Kelly to continue growing in confidence taking the ball to the line (and through it!).

Where It Will Be Won: Goal-line defence. Each of these teams has conceded around two-thirds of their tries from inside 10 metres, which means this is a glaring weak spot for both. Add to that each of these teams has scored at least two thirds of their tries so far from inside their opponent’s 20 and you’ve got two of the real-short range specialists of the competition.

Repeat sets will be crucial – whichever of these teams can force the opposition to defend their own line set after set is bound to break through and earn the advantage.

The History: Played 78; Manly 54, Cronulla 22, drawn 2. Manly have by far the better record between these two clubs, even aside from those two grand final wins. They’ve won the past five clashes in a row, and have won their past five matches at Toyota Stadium, scoring an average of 35.8 points in that run. They’ve even got the edge in overall matches at Shark Park, winning 17 of 31 against 14 for Cronulla.

This will be the 50th time Cronulla have played Manly since the 1978 grand final, having won just 17 of those.

Conclusion: Manly certainly have the edge in the history stakes but this looks like a different Cronulla outfit to recent seasons, and they ground out a win here against the defending premiers just three weeks ago. Cronulla have had by far the better preparation and look more settled.

This looks a very even match-up and there’s no reason the boys from the Shire can’t shake their home-ground hoodoo and claw one back against their northern beaches rivals.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Luke Phillips; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm (viewer’s choice), delayed 9.20pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.