Sharks v Sea Eagles preview

Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v Manly Warringah Sea Eagles
Toyota Stadium
Monday 7pm (AEDT)

Summer may be on the way out but the heat will rise at Toyota Stadium on Monday night when these fierce seaside foes face off in the traditional battle of the beaches – and events of the past few days make this clash the most intriguing of the round.

Just a fortnight into the new season Sharks coach Shane Flanagan has already lost patience with his underperforming squad after their inept finishing and clumsy defeat at the hands of the Knights at home last week left them with a 0-2 record. Flanagan gave his team the mother of all sprays after the loss and has been quick to wield the axe this week in an effort to find spark, with five-eighth Wade Graham making way for Todd Carney’s return in his favoured No.6 jersey.

Flanagan knows his history and is well aware that in the past 20 years only two teams have managed to rally from two opening losses to win the premiership (Panthers 2003 and Sea Eagles 2008).

Meanwhile the Sea Eagles have been rocked by turbulence, with news their star halfback Daly Cherry-Evans has sought a release from the last year of his bargain agreement to allow him to cash in on his form and status. Halves partner Kieran Foran is another who has requested Sea Eagles bosses “show him the money” with a reported claim for a 14 per cent stake of the ever-burgeoning salary cap to guarantee his earning capacity.

The wrangling for money comes hot on the heels of Manly’s impressive 2-0 opening to their premiership defence. It’s the last thing new coach Geoff Toovey needs hanging over preparations – it certainly has the potential to destabilise the player unit.

Back to the Sharks, it’s not all doom and gloom for them – despite anchoring the bottom of the ladder alongside the Rabbitohs and Eels they actually lead a bunch of key statistics categories. It was just a Benji Marshall field-goal that proved the difference in the first round while a whopping 17 errors and uncompetitive 60 per cent completion rate cruelled their chances against the Knights.

Flanagan has pinned his hopes on Carney setting the team alight, and will be looking for him to strike an immediate chord with new halfback Jeff Robson, who makes his debut at the Shire after joining from the Eels.

Bryce Gibbs, a late withdrawal last week along with former Wests Tigers team-mate Andrew Fifita, returns at prop. His inclusion pushes Jason Bukuya to the second row with Anthony Tupou to start from the interchange. Tupou is joined on a six-man bench by Fifita, Graham, John Morris, Mark Taufua and Sam Tagataese.

Meanwhile the Sea Eagles remain unchanged from the 17 that got the points against the Wests Tigers last week.

It’s a big week for prop Brent Kite who will join fellow Manly legends Paul Vautin and Graham Eadie on 238 first grade appearances.

Watch Out Sharks: Tony Williams is brewing towards a banner year. Already ‘T-Rex’ leads all forwards for tackle-breaks with 17 (six behind Raiders fullback Josh Dugan overall). The way the Sea Eagles’ wrecking ball shrugged off Wests Tigers skipper Robbie Farah to score from close range last week should send shudders through the Sharks camp. Cronulla have conceded four of their six tries from inside their 10-metre zone so they need to muscle up.

The Sea Eagles are renowned for their left-side attack – but expect them to head elsewhere and exploit the Sharks’ weak left-edge defence. Already Cronulla have leaked five of their six tries down this corridor. Centre Colin Best and winger John Williams (two missed tackles a game) need to muscle up.

Manly five-eighth Kieran Foran is due a big game; after a quiet start to 2012 he’ll be out to produce big-time to back up his claims for more cash. After totalling 17 try assists, 57 tackle busts and nearly 10 runs a game in 2011 Foran has yet to offer a try assist, has just five tackle-breaks and is running the ball just seven times a match. That’s not good news for the Sharks.

Danger Sign: Toyota Stadium hardly holds any fears for the Sea Eagles – they’ve won their past five matches at Cronulla HQ and worryingly for Shane Flanagan’s brigade have racked up a whopping 32.4 points on average. The Sharks need to put that to the back of their minds or they’ll be defeated before they even run out.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: If Manly take the Sharks lightly they’ll get burned. Cronulla are the great deceivers of 2012: they lead the comp for most territory (1510 metres), most line-breaks (6.5 a game – including seven against the Knights last week), tackle-breaks (average 46) and offloads (17.5). It’s just errors that are preventing them from fulfilling their obvious potential – they’re making 17 a game, the second most by any side.

Manly centres Jamie Lyon and Dean Whare can expect a solid workout from their opposites Colin Best and Ben Pomeroy, who are ranked second and third among three-quarters for tackle busts with 12 and 11 respectively. Fullback Nathan Gardner adds to the running threat with 14 tackle busts, while Carney will enjoy the wider spaces at five-eighth.

Meanwhile Sea Eagles skipper Lyon has missed the second-most tackles by a centre (averaging a poor four a game).

Danger Sign: A whopping 11 Sharks are averaging more than 90 metres, headed by tireless skipper Paul Gallen (178) and fullback Gardner (143) and backed up by Bryce Gibbs (121), Stewart Mills (120), Colin Best (110), John Williams (107), Jason Bukuya (105), Matthew Wright (101), Ben Pomeroy (97), Ben Ross (97) and Wade Graham (91). If the Sea Eagles allow the Sharks to spread the ball or generate any sort of second-phase momentum they’ll need to pull off more than a couple of try saves.

Jeremy Smith v Anthony Watmough: Two second-rowers who bring aggression, skill and a strong defensive ethic to their teams. Smith has already put two team-mates into open space and is averaging 30 tackles a game, while ‘Choc’ has five tackle busts plus four offloads and a line-break assist to go with his 25 tackles a match. Expect a fast-burning fuse as they come together.

Where It Will Be Won: In capitalising on scoring chances and safely defusing kicks.

The Sharks blew four definite try opportunities last week – that can’t continue if they’re to become finals candidates. To date they’re completing their sets at a paltry 64 per cent compared to the Sea Eagles’ 75 per cent.

Whichever side holds their nerve fielding attacking kicks will gain a huge advantage: these sides are the poorest in the league for defusing all kicks (Sea Eagles 54 per cent, Sharks 56 per cent).

The History: Played 79; Sea Eagles 55, Sharks 22, drawn 2. The Sea Eagles have won seven of the past eight clashes including the past six straight. They boast an 18-14 advantage at Toyota Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: A Jamie Lyon speculative kick resulted in a dream bounce for chaser Michael Oldfield and a match-winning try for the Sea Eagles as the fulltime siren reverberated around Toyota Stadium in Round 5 last year. The visitors celebrated a 19-13 win, clawing back a 6-nil first-half deficit to dominate the second 40 on the back of an incredible 11 full sets of possession more than their opponents. The stats sheet shows the Sharks lost the second half 19-6 – and they completed their second-half sets at an impressive 80 per cent! If that’s not incentive for payback this weekend we don’t know what is. Joe Galuvao was the destroyer for the Sea Eagles, making 20 hit-ups and 155 metres in 45 minutes, while Paul Gallen made 194 metres from 23 hit-ups in the blue, black and white.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Chris Butler; Video Referee – Bernard Sutton.

The Way We See It: The Sea Eagles are rightful favourites after their two impressive victories to date – but we sense an ambush here. If you are already behind the eight ball in your tipping comps this could be the chance to bag an upset result. We’ll go out on a limb and tip the Sharkies by six points in a boil-over.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats