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Cronulla Sharks v Newcastle Knights
Toyota Stadium
Sunday 2pm

It could have been so different for the Sharks and Knights this week. A golden-point thriller to kick off the 2012 NRL season proved heartbreaking for Newcastle after all the hype of the pre-season and it was the same story for Cronulla just three days later when Wests Tigers star Benji Marshall ruined their plans for a fast start with his extra-time field goal.

But a loss is a loss and the Knights travel down the F3 this Sunday for a clash which will see one side walk away with consecutive losses to kick off their year. The pressure is certainly on.

It’s difficult to know exactly what to read into Newcastle’s 15-14 loss to the Dragons last Thursday night. Shocking conditions prevented either side showing off their best in attack and under the circumstances a close encounter was to be expected so early in the season.

Perhaps the most telling difference to the Knights was the presence of new fullback Darius Boyd, who looked dangerous throughout despite being well defended by a Dragons outfit that knew exactly what he was going to throw at them. There was also evidence of coach Wayne Bennett’s imprint taking hold, with Boyd chiming into the backline midway through the first half as part of the set move he made famous during his time with St George Illawarra.

Clearly, the Knights are still a work in progress although Bennett did point out an ironic piece of symmetry during his post-match press conference: his first game in charge of the Dragons in 2009 saw his side beaten in golden-point extra time by Melbourne! If that’s some sort of sign of what’s to come, Newcastle fans have plenty to look forward to.

However, while more will be known about the Knights as time goes by, there is little doubt that Cronulla will pose a much greater threat to their premiership rivals in 2012 than in recent years. The most significant change at the Shire is, of course, the arrival of ‘bad boy’ Todd Carney who may have had his problems off the field but is also a game-changer for the Sharks. It was only two years ago that Carney won the Dally M medal on his way to a grand final with the Roosters and he could very well be the solution to Cronulla’s point-scoring woes.

The Sharks have also bolstered their forwards and now boast a pack as good as any in the NRL: Paul Gallen, Jeremy Smith, Anthony Tupou, Ben Ross and Andrew Fifita is a roster any club would be pleased with.

However, with wins at a premium over the past few years, it remains to be seen how Cronulla regroup after a series of unlucky refereeing decisions went against them in their loss to the Tigers. The admission by referees boss Bill Harrigan that a crucial call against them just moments before Marshall kicked the winning point was wrong might prove that the Sharks did indeed do enough to win but it doesn’t help their cause on the NRL ladder.

Coach Shane Flanagan has made only one change this week, with Stewart Mills named on the wing in place of Matthew Wright, with Mark Taufua again likely to be the man to drop off a five-man bench.

Newcastle’s only change is in the centres, where Junior Sa’u comes in to replace the suspended Timana Tahu.

Notably, both of these sides broke an NRL record for the most line-up changes from their final match of 2011, with eight apiece.

Watch Out Knights: The Todd Carney factor is already having an influence at Cronulla after just one round. The zippy halfback produced two huge plays for the Sharks against the Wests Tigers – the first a well-timed pass to send Colin Best over on the left side and the second a classic Carney run that saw him step inside one defender and race past the fullback to score a try of his own.

Carney remains a player that can turn a game on its head and the Knights can’t afford to relax for a second. After all, the last time he played a full season in 2010 he finished the year with 16 tries, 21 line-breaks, 18 try assists, 19 line-break assists, 133 tackle-breaks and 255 points.

Danger Sign: Newcastle have struggled in recent seasons when it comes to shutting their opponents down and preventing second-phase play. In fact, they conceded more offloads last season than any other side with 322 across the 24 rounds.

Their defensive concerns were also reflected in their effective tackle percentage of 84.1 per cent which was worse than all but South Sydney. The Knights produced more ineffective tackles than any other side with 506 as well as missing 849 tackles. Cronulla boast some of the NRL’s most prolific off-loaders in Paul Gallen and Anthony Tupou so Newcastle must focus on shutting them down.

Watch Out Sharks: Cronulla’s right-side defence will need to be alert to the danger presented by Knights fullback Darius Boyd. It took just 24 minutes of the Wayne Bennett era for Newcastle to pull out the same double-decoy set play made famous during his time at the Dragons, with Boyd chiming into the backline and firing a pass out to his winger to cross. Even against a side that knew exactly what was coming, it took a forward pass to deny Newcastle the try last week; it will be important that Cronulla keep a close eye on what is transpiring.

Danger Sign: The Sharks are extremely susceptible to the attacking kick – be it from short range or further out. Last season they ranked 15th in the NRL (ahead of only wooden spooners the Gold Coast) for kicks successfully defused with 129 of 197 at just 65 per cent.

And they struggled against a range of kick types including the chip, which they defused just 17 out of 28 times (61 per cent), and grubber (36 of 51 at 71 per cent). However it was under the high ball that they were at their worst. The Sharks defused just 46 per cent of mid-field bombs and 51 per cent of cross-field bombs. Notably, all of Cronulla’s outside backs this week were at the club last season.

Todd Carney v Jarrod Mullen: A fascinating match-up of the two key playmakers who both showed enough in Round 1 to suggest they are in for a big 2012. While Carney sparked his side’s attack with a try assist and a brilliant solo try, Mullen did the same against St George Illawarra with a superb 20-metre dash in the 33rd-minute to get the Knights going. Mullen’s kicking game could be telling: he kicked for 450 metres in Round 1 compared to Carney’s 307.

Where It Will Be Won: The forward battle will be epic with Gibbs, Ross, Smith, Tupou and Gallen certain to fire up against Newcastle’s Kade Snowden, Adam Cuthbertson, Zeb Taia, Neville Costigan and Chris Houston.

However, there is more to this clash that usual. Snowden was a controversial departure from Cronulla over the off-season after he reneged on a handshake deal with the Sharks to return home to Newcastle once Nathan Tinkler called to express his interest. Expect his former team-mates to give him a working over this weekend.

Similarly, Cronulla hooker Isaac De Gois was one of the first casualties of the Wayne Bennett era at Newcastle and will be determined to prove the master coach wrong. It shapes as a brutal day at the footy.

The History: Played 38; Knights 22, Sharks 15, drawn 1. Newcastle have enjoyed the better of it in recent times, having win their past three clashes including both games in 2011. If they win again this weekend it will be the first time they have won four games in a row against Cronulla.

The Last Time They Met: An undermanned Newcastle ground out an 18-0 win at Toyota Stadium with Akuila Uate and Matt Hilder scoring tries and Kurt Gidley kicking five goals. It was a spirited showing by the visitors, who were forced to overcome an 8-3 penalty count against them in the first half but still managed to go to the break ahead 2-0. It was just the 12th time in 578 games that Newcastle had managed to keep their opponents scoreless and the first time they had ever done so away from home.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Pat Reynolds.

The Way We See It: This should be another thrilling encounter – which won’t do much for the tickers of either Shane Flanagan or Wayne Bennett after last week’s disappointments. The hype will no doubt focus once more on Bennett’s Knights, but this isn’t the same Cronulla side that could be ticked off as an easy two points not so long ago. With a quality forward pack and the strike provided by Carney and his halves partner Wade Graham, a Cronulla victory wouldn’t surprise at all. Sharks by six points with the home advantage.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats

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