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Sharks v Bulldogs
Toyota Stadium
Monday 7pm

Last week was as equally lifting for the Bulldogs as it was deflating for the Sharks, as one team kept their season alive while the other disappeared into the ether and won’t be seen beyond the last four rounds.

The Sharks, down in 12th, are now playing for pride, while the Bulldogs still have a faint sniff of the finals despite being two wins out of the top eight in 10th with just four games to play.

The question now becomes whether the home side can lift themselves to play without the carrot on the stick… surely they are down in the dumps after losing to the wooden spoon favourites in a must-win home match?

David Mead’s miracle pick-up aside, the Sharks had all the ball against the Titans last week – 10 sets more, to be exact – yet couldn’t get the job done. They added 1718 metres (the second most made by any side all year!) compared to the Titans’ 1218 metres, had 53 runs within their opposition’s quarter while the Titans had just 10… and still they lost 20-16.

Depressing for all concerned – and it could just be enough to see the Sharks sink into the mire of mediocrity from here in.

The Bulldogs, on the other hand, took care of business against the Cowboys, their 14-6 win leaving their fans clinging to hope. They need to keep winning and have the teams above falter, but stranger things have happened.

The home-side Sharks welcome back Nathan Gardner at fullback, pushing Isaac Gordon to the wing and Matthew Wright out.

Taulima Tautai is out of the second row following the return of Jayson Bukuya. Paul Aiton is also gone. Albert Kelly makes his return and is joined by Colin Best on an extended bench.

For the Bulldogs, Ben Roberts returns at five-eighth, pushing Josh Reynolds back to hooker and Joel Romelo out of the side.

Watch Out Sharks: It’s no secret the Bulldogs, especially fullback Ben Barba, are deadly from long range. But with a potentially more lethargic Sharks side on the pitch – things could get ugly. To date the Bulldogs have scored an NRL-high 20 tries from their own side of halfway. The Sharks on the other hand have scored an NRL low of just two from their own half. The Bulldogs have 11 kick-return line-breaks so the Sharks had still better be prepared to do the little things well, like kick-chase. Thankfully, so far the Cronulla boys have been okay defending teams coming off their own line, having conceded just seven long-range efforts.

Danger Sign: Watch the first few clearing kicks to get a feel on the home side’s attitude. You can probably put money down on the skipper Paul Gallen leading the chase downfield so hopefully he’ll continue to lift his buddies despite the lack of motivation. The Sharks technically could still get the wooden spoon… they should keep that in mind.

Watch Out Bulldogs: If the Sharks have been looking at the stats, one particular number would have stood out like caddie Stevie Williams at a birthday bash for Tiger Woods. The Bulldogs have managed to successfully defuse 35 per cent of cross-field bombs this season. No, it’s not a typo – just 35 per cent! This means teams have a 65 per cent chance of getting a result every time they hoist the ball across the field… not bad odds to back yourself with. The most amazing thing about this is there are actually two teams in the NRL worse than the ’Dogs! (Titans 33 per cent, Cowboys 32 per cent).

Danger Sign: He’s no doubt going to be rusty but the Bulldogs should keep an eye on the injection of Albert Kelly. Kelly was really finding his feet in the top grade before serious injury curtailed his season. He has pace off the mark and great skills with the ball.

Plays To Watch: Cranky Franky Pritchard continuing his ‘hit squad’ defence (he is averaging more tackles than at any time in his career); Greg Eastwood joining Pritchard on the edges in attack; Chad Townsend taking on more responsibility and backing himself.

Where It Will Be Won: Pushing up and second-phase football.

When you look at the offload stats of the two teams the first thing you notice is that the Sharks tally more. The raw numbers are 246 against 227. The Sharks obviously have the likes of Anthony Tupou and Paul Gallen getting the ball away… in fact Gallen needs just five to become the first player in NRL history to register 500 career offloads.

Meanwhile the Bulldogs have the likes of Pritchard, Barba, Corey Payne and Jamal Idris busting the ball out the back. But while the Sharks have more offloads to this point, the ’Dogs have a truckload more supports. With 664 for the season they are ranked fourth in the NRL and are light years ahead of the Sharks who have just 383 to be ranked 15th.

So what, you may ask? Well, the more times a player puts themself in a position to receive a pass, the more likely they are to get one but also – by supporting their mate – they put the defence in two minds and create space. If the Sharks struggled to support each other when they were in contention… they might be even worse now.

The History: Played 82; Sharks 30, Bulldogs 50, drawn 2. The Sharks took care of the Bulldogs earlier this season with a 26-10 win at ANZ Stadium. It was their first win after four consecutive losses to the Bulldogs. But be wary… Cronulla haven’t defeated Canterbury in successive games since 2000. In the 35 matches played between the teams at Toyota Stadium the Bulldogs have won 18, the Sharks 16, with one draw.

Conclusion: The Bulldogs should be all over this match due to the motivational factor alone. If they can’t get it going for this encounter they deserve to have their finals’ hopes extinguished. Loyal Sharks’ fans can still hope for some effort but just how much motivation they have left remains to be seen.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gavin Morris; Touch Judges – Steve Carrall & Chris Butler; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.