Sharks v Dragons preview

Cronulla Sharks v St George Illawarra Dragons
Toyota Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Cronulla will be eyeing a fourth straight win knowing the two competition points will likely edge them into the top four for the first time in four long seasons – but to do so they must overcome a fearsome opponent that’s beaten them in five of their six past meetings.  

There’s nothing quite like this southern Sydney local derby, especially when both the participants are in good form. The Sharks have overcome the disappointment of back-to-back losses to open 2012, rolling the Sea Eagles, Cowboys and Panthers in succession, while the Dragons lost few admirers in their 28-20 loss to the Broncos north of the border last Friday, despite leaking four unanswered tries in the opening stanza.

The Sharks’ win over the Panthers in Penrith showed plenty of character: they were outscored three tries to two but displayed a level-headedness that’s been missing in recent seasons, making few errors and continuing to respect the ball like it was made of gold.

The win elevated the Sharks to sixth on the ladder – just five differential points behind the Dragons who sit fifth.

Sharks coach Shane Flanagan has been forced to elevate John Morris to the starting side following the knee injury hooker Isaac De Gois sustained early in the second half against the Panthers. Former Dragon Jon Green and Mark Taufua are the new faces on the interchange, with one player to be cut.

Steve Price has made just the one cosmetic change to the Dragons, with Dean Young to start at lock and Jeremy Latimore benched.

Watch Out Sharks: Shane Flanagan knows the Dragons will look to score from the boot of Jamie Soward, given the Sharks have yielded more tries to kicks (six) than any other side. They are particularly vulnerable to grubber kicks, having defused just 60 per cent – and the Dragons enjoyed success off a grubber when Brett Morris scored last week. The Sharks are also weak in the air on the edges, defusing just a third of cross-field bombs sent the way of wingers Stewart Mills and John Williams.

The Sharks can’t afford to squander their opportunities and in particular their decoy runners and kick chasers need to get their timing right. Incredibly the Sharks have been penalised a whopping six times in attack!

Danger Sign: Eight of the 15 tries the Sharks have conceded have come from line-breaks – good news for Dragons fullback Brett Morris who loves running out against his Shire neighbours. Morris made two line-breaks, nine tackle busts and 152 metres last time they met. To date in 2012 he has scored twice, added four line-breaks and three try assists. His 188 metres a game are the second most by a fullback, while his 12 offloads are the third most by anyone.

Watch Out Dragons: Daniel Vidot, Beau Scott and Ben Creagh had better get ready, because the Sharks are headed right. Cronulla have scored six tries down the right side of the field, compared to just two on the left. Winger Vidot could be the weak link – he’s been ineffective one in every four tackle attempts.

The Sharks’ success has been built around a strong go-forward (1478 metres, the most each week), penetrative running (38.4 tackle busts, the second most) and prolific second-phase play (13.2 offloads, the second most). The Dragons are the benchmark in defence, missing the fewest tackles of all sides (just 21) – but they can’t afford an off night. Plus, they need to get numbers in their tackles this week, given they concede the sixth-most offloads (10 a game).   

Jamie Soward’s long-kicking game needs to improve or else the Sharks will gain easy metres on kick returns. To date Soward is finding open space just 45 per cent of the time – the third least accurate return in the comp. By comparison Todd Carney is finding clear turf a whopping 62 per cent (fourth best).

The Dragons have been disciplined so far, conceding just 21 tackles (the second fewest) – but they’ll want to make sure they toe the line this week as the Sharks give absolutely nothing away, conceding the fewest penalties in the comp (just 15).

Danger Sign: If Paul Gallen (17 offloads) and Ben Pomeroy (11 offloads) are allowed to keep the ball alive down the right edge the Dragons could find it tough to keep the Sharks out. 

Ben Creagh v Jason Bukuya: Two powerful second-rowers in rousing form – there’s nothing between them so far and whoever claims the advantage on the stats sheet should be on the winning team. Bukuya has made 87 metres a game, plus 14 tackle busts (the second most by a back-rower) plus two line-breaks, two tries, three offloads and a try assist, while Origin representative Creagh has tallied 89 metres, seven tackle busts, five offloads, a line-break assist and a try assist.  

Where It Will Be Won: On the scoreboard – while both sides have been stern in defence their attacks haven’t really caught fire. The Sharks average the fourth-fewest tries (2.4) while the Dragons are middle of the pack (3.2). The team that dazzles will prevail – and in that regard it may hinge on the battle between five-eighths Todd Carney and Jamie Soward, with word on the grapevine suggesting Carney has his nose in front of Soward for the New South Wales No.6 jersey.    

The History: Played 28; Sharks 14, Dragons 13, drawn 1. The Dragons have won five of the past eight, including their biggest win over the Sharks (28-nil in 2010). But the Sharks have a dominant 8-4 record at home – they upset the defending premiers with a rousing 16-10 victory at Shire HQ in Round 2 last year.

The Last Time They Met: The Dragons overwhelmed the Sharks 38-8 at WIN Jubilee Stadium in Round 19 last year.

The home side ran their opponents ragged in the opening 40 minutes, posting four unanswered tries for a 24-nil lead. The game was as good as gone when Michael Weyman crossed for their third try with just 18 minutes showing on the clock.

The Sharks rallied early in the second half, with tries to Josh Cordoba and Colin Best some cause for joy, before Jamie Soward and Jon Green crossed in the final 10 minutes.

The Sharks simply had no answer to the Dragons’ powerful running, conceding eight line-breaks and missing a whopping 54 tackles. Seven Dragons busted their defensive line, with Brett Morris achieving the feat twice.

The Dragons were extremely effective in defence – they made only five errors and managed to restrict Paul Gallen to ‘just’ 136 metres of territory.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younnis & Grant Atkins; Video Referee – Russell Smith.

The Way We See It: The Sharks have tallied some surprisingly good statistics so far but this is their acid test. They are finding it hard to score points and the Dragons won’t offer them easy chances. We’ll opt for St George Illawarra by six points but wouldn’t be surprised if the Sharks win running away.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats