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Wests Tigers v Sharks
Leichhardt Oval
Sunday 2pm (AEDT)

Is there a juicier Round 1 clash than the Wests Tigers-Sharks match-up? It has more sub-plots than an episode of Lost – a wayward star beginning a long journey to redemption; a sacked duo searching for revenge on their former employer; a new player signed for huge money desperate to prove his worth to his new team; and bitter rivalries threatening to boil over.

Big things are predicted of the Wests Tigers in 2012 after they fell agonisingly short of a preliminary final last season. This year the Tigers welcome barnstorming Kiwi back-rower Adam Blair and his signing, which had a significant flow-on effect to the club’s playing roster, has brought added expectation to a club already in premiership reckoning. Coupled with the recent announcement that this is Gareth Ellis’ final year at the club, and it appears 2012 is the now-or-never season for the Tigers. With some of the game’s most electrifying and damaging attacking players, including Benji Marshall, Robbie Farah and Chris Lawrence, bookmakers, at least, think they’re in with a strong chance of a title.

Cronulla, on the other hand, enter this match full of expectation and enthusiasm after a disappointing 2011. Finally the Sharks have a game-breaking playmaker on their books… and he’ll be desperate to prove his many doubters wrong from the opening whistle. Sure, human headline Todd Carney was overlooked by plenty of other NRL clubs when he was kicked out by the Roosters last season – but in him the Sharks have an undoubted superstar half they’ve been lacking. Coupled with a ferocious pack containing Paul Gallen, Jeremy Smith and co. and the Sharks could well be on their way back to finals football – if linchpin Carney stays on the field and out of trouble.

Both teams’ trial form has been inconsistent, with the Tigers and Sharks each winning one of their two practice matches. Tim Sheens’ Tigers won their first hit-out 20-12 against the Eels at Bluetongue Stadium, before the Roosters defeated them at Campbelltown Stadium 28-24 a week later. The Sharks started strongly against premiers Manly, winning 38-6, before losing in the final minutes against the Knights 22-18 in Muswellbrook.

The Tigers are near full-strength, missing just Lote Tuqiri due to a thumb injury. He is expected to be back in Round 4. Despite statements to the contrary, coach Tim Sheens has named rookie fullback James Tedesco to make his NRL debut in the No.1 jersey. Sheens has named an 18-man side, with one player to drop off the bench.

Meanwhile the Sharks haven’t dropped any surprises, naming Carney in the No.7 jersey, with other imports Isaac De Gois, Ben Ross, Bryce Gibbs, Andrew Fifita, Mark Taufua and Jon Green also in coach Shane Flanagan’s 19-man squad.

Watch Out Tigers: Needless to say, Tim Sheens will be keeping a very close eye on Sharks halfback Carney. The 2010 Dally M medal winner is a proven line-breaker, hole-maker and match-winner – when he’s on song he’s arguably the most influential playmaker in the game. The stats from his record-breaking year show his potential influence – 16 tries, 21 line-breaks, 19 line-break assists, 18 try assists, 2479 running metres, 133 tackle-breaks and 4753 kicking metres. When he’s in the mood he’s as devastating as anyone in the NRL. The Tigers, particularly their big forwards towards the end of each half, had better be ready to pounce when he’s injecting others or himself into attacking raids.

Danger Sign: For Cronulla to be a force in 2012, they need all their attacking aces to perform to their potential, including hard-running back-rower Anthony Tupou. In recent seasons Tupou has struggled, but following off-season surgery the second-rower is now determined to rekindle his top form. Revolutionary knee surgery to regenerate the growth of cartilage has Tupou feeling more comfortable with an injury he’s functioned with for almost three seasons. It’s good news for Sharks fans – and potentially bad news for Tigers supporters on Sunday. Tupou’s attacking impact has direct correlation to the Sharks’ fortunes – last season when the former Rooster ran for more than 80 metres, Cronulla won 75 per cent of their matches.

Watch Out Sharks: Adam Blair is ready to make a big impression – ironically against the Sharks. The deal Blair signed with the Tigers was so lucrative it left the club with no option but to punt Bryce Gibbs and Andrew Fifita... to Cronulla. Much was said about the Tigers’ willingness to let go of two stars for the signing of Blair; Fifita even challenged Blair to run at him when they were still playing for the Tigers and Storm respectively late last season. No doubt Blair, a New Zealand international and masterful back-rower, will be looking forward to silencing his detractors.

Danger Sign: Benji Marshall is the Sharks’ nemesis… and Cronulla will do well to keep him quiet. In recent years Marshall has ripped the Sharks to shreds, masterminding a three-year winning run against their opponents. (The Tigers have beaten the Sharks in 12 of their past 13 encounters, too!) The more football Benji sees, the less likely Cronulla is to spring an upset. Records from recent years show he isn’t likely to go quiet against the Sharks, either – he has scored seven tries from only nine matches against Cronulla, making the Sharks arguably his favourite opponents. Tigers fans need only rewind their highlights reel to 2009 for some Benji brilliance against the Sharks – in Round 23, Marshall put on a masterclass, running 199 metres and scoring 24 points in a display of total dominance. Give him an inch, Sharks, and he’ll take hundreds of metres.

Robbie Farah v Isaac De Gois: There’s arguably no greater battle than these two smart, aggressive and super-competitive hookers on Sunday. Sure, Marshall and Carney will draw the headlines, but all the creativity and attacking play starts with Farah and De Gois at dummy-half. The quality of their service, offensive options and timing of runs could well prove the difference between two evenly matched forward packs. Ironically the two were former team-mates at the Tigers in 2006… before it became obvious Farah wasn’t budging and De Gois headed to the Shire for opportunities. Seems Gibbs and Fifita aren’t the only former Wests Tigers with points to prove come Sunday…

The History: Played 20; Wests Tigers 14, Cronulla 5, drawn 1. Leichhardt Oval results favour of the Tigers, but not as heavily as some fans might think – the Tigers have won three of five there against the Sharks. Cronulla even recorded their biggest win against the Tigers there – a 32-6 drubbing in 2008.

The Last Time They Met: Last year the Tigers trumped the Sharks 30-22 in their only clash, at Toyota Stadium in the last round of the regular competition… but it wasn’t as one-sided at some predicted. It took the finals-bound Tigers almost 75 minutes to gain the upper hand. The Tigers’ win moved them to 34 points at the completion of the regular season and also equalled the club record of eight consecutive victories set in 2005.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell and Chris James; Sideline Officials – Jason Walsh and Henry Perenara; Video Referee – Steve Clark.

The Way We See It: The Tigers should have too much in attack for the Sharks, but it could be a closer-fought contest than many think. Benji might just have the wood on the Sharks, but perhaps Cronulla have found kryptonite – Todd Carney has won four of his past five matches against Marshall. Leichhardt Oval, where the Tigers have lost only once in the past two seasons, is a huge advantage for Tim Sheens’ men. Tigers by seven points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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