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Cronulla Sharks v Parramatta Eels
Toyota Stadium
Sunday, 2pm

What happens when the NRL’s surprise packets meet the league’s biggest disappointments? No, this isn’t a joke – it’s a preview for the Sharks-Eels clash at Toyota Stadium on Sunday afternoon.

The tale of the two sides in 2012 couldn’t be more different – Cronulla are the league’s good-news story while the slipping Eels, who have won just one match this season, are well and truly on the nose.

After three years of on- and off-field turmoil, everything is coming up trumps in 2012 for the Sharks. After finishing 15th, 14th and 13th in 2009, 2010 and 2011 respectively, Cronulla have now found their way into the top four, with last week’s victory over the Dragons their fourth in a row. (The Sharks have won five straight games only once in the past decade, in 2008.) This season, the Sharks have accounted for some big-name teams including the Sea Eagles, Cowboys and Panthers, but nothing was more impressive than last week’s shutout of the Dragons at home.

The Eels, on the other hand, just can’t find their groove – and season 2012 is fast slipping from their grasp. With just one win from six matches, Parramatta is in turmoil and stakeholders are contributing their two cents’ worth of advice. (Eels great Peter Sterling even came out during to week and said new halfback Chris Sandow was overweight.) Two weeks ago it appeared as though Stephen Kearney’s men had turned the corner with a 29-20 win at home against Manly… then they fell back into bad habits in a forgettable match, another loss, against the Knights.

For the Sharks, injured fullback Nathan Gardner has been replaced at the back by Matthew Wright. Gardner suffered an ACL injury at the end of the Dragons game and is expected to miss most of the remainder of the season. Stewart Mills returns to the top grade on the flank previously occupied by the now-no.1 Wright. Jon Green, who was named to play against the Dragons but was omitted from the Cronulla line-up, has again been named on an extended bench.

For the Eels there’s just one change, with centre Esi Tonga returning to the starting line-up. The former Titan was a late withdrawal last week due to a hamstring strain. His availability sees Ryan Morgan return to the NSW Cup. The sole change is either a display of loyalty by coach Kearney or admittance that the line-up is the club’s best – either way Eels fans will be expecting a hell of a lot more from their team.

Watch Out Sharks: It could only be a matter of time. The Eels have an electric run in them, and any opponents taking them lightly will no doubt suffer the consequences. Turn back the clock to 2009, when in Round 18 they were running 14th. Even captain Nathan Hindmarsh admitted his team needed to win “10 of their last nine games” to qualify for the finals. Then they did the impossible, winning seven games to qualify, eventually making it through to the grand final. Right them off at your peril, Cronulla.

Danger Sign: The good news for Eels fans is the nucleus of the team that made the successful run to the grand final in 2009 is still around. Keys to the march to the finals are still at the club, including influential No.1 Jarryd Hayne, crowd favourite Fuifui Moimoi and tireless skipper Hindmarsh. The Eels mightn’t have the best team in the comp, but they do have proven match winners. Expect the recently criticised Hayne and halfback Sandow to come out all guns blazing – they have absolutely nothing to lose with the team averaging poor figures in points scored (12.2 – last), tries scored (2 – last) and line-breaks (2.8 – 14th) The good news for Eels fans is when they finally turn their terrible form around, history says they’re going to be very hard to stop.

Watch Out Eels: There’s arguably no better team at grinding out a victory in 2012 than the Sharks – their four victories have been by a total of just 22 points. This season Cronulla look a united bunch prepared to work together for team success. Look no further than the victory against St George Illawarra last week – time after time Cronulla withheld the Dragons’ attacking waves, notching a season-high team tackle count of 389 in the shutout victory.

Danger Sign: The Sharkies’ attack is just getting warmed up. So far this season Cronulla average 14.3 points (ranked 13th) and 2.3 tries (ranked 13th) per game, but on the back of the league’s highest number of metres per game (1499) that is bound to improve sooner rather than later. The Sharks’ attacking troubles boil down the fact their halves pairing is only just four games old. New recruits Jeff Robson and Todd Carney, who have a 4-0 record as the No.6 and No.7 partnership, will take time to ‘gel’ – but the initial impressions are encouraging. The former Eel and Rooster are experienced in guiding their sides deep into the semis too (Robson led the Eels to the grand final in 2009; Carney led the Roosters to the decider in 2010), a sign that things should only get better offensively in the Shire.

Jeff Robson v Chris Sandow: Are these two players the most important members of their side? You mightn’t think so, but statistics reveal both are integral to their team’s performance.

Former Eel Robson (no tries, no line-breaks or line-break assists, two try assists and four tackle-breaks) is a no-frills playmaker vital to the Sharks – he’s the attacking foil to the much-vaunted Carney, and the organiser the Sharks have lacked in recent years. It’s no surprise Cronulla haven’t lost since he’s been on board.

Meanwhile Sandow (three tries, one line-break, four line-break assists and two try assists in 2012) hasn’t had such an enjoyable time at his new club. The former Rabbitoh, called ‘overweight’ during the week, has tasted victory just once at the Eels. At his former club, the jack-in-the-box No.7 proved most effective and damaging when he carefully and thoughtfully chose his time to run the ball or pop a pass. His involvement needs to be quality rather than quantity – as evidenced by the fact the Rabbitohs never won on the four occasions last season Sandow ran more than 10 times. If he selects his ‘go’ moment better, and provides crisp service to his outside men more often, the Sharks will have plenty of challenges to overcome.

Where It Will Be Won: It’s all about the Eels’ attack and the Sharks’ defence. Recently the Cronulla ‘D’ has been superb… and the Parramatta offence incredibly poor. Barring the Eels’ 29-20 win against Manly, Kearney’s troops have scored six points on four occasions, scoring 20 points in the other match. It’s been an abysmal start to 2012 offensively for the Eels – but with Hayne and Sandow calling the shots, you get the feeling something’s got to give soon.

Same can be said for the Sharks’ defence – they’ve absorbed an awful lot of punishment recently, holding the Dragons to nil, and the Panthers, Cowboys and Sea Eagles to 14 points each. If the Sharks can keep the momentum going, though, they should have enough attacking strikepower to overcome the defensively weak Eels.

The History: Played 74 – Cronulla 39, Parramatta 35. The Sharks have the edge in matches played at Toyota Stadium, winning 19 of the sides’ 32 clashes. Cronulla have won five of the past seven matches between the clubs.

The Last Time They Met: Cronulla might have the wood on the Eels having won five of their past seven matches against the blue-and-golds, but it was all Parramatta in Round 11 last season. The Eels won 40-6 on the back of doubles to Jordan Atkins and Luke Burt. Jarryd Hayne was particularly influential, having a strong performance on the back of having recently been dumped from the NSW State of Origin side.

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons and Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid and Dave Ryan; Video Referee – Rod Lawrence

The Way We See It: There’s no doubt, based on recent form, Cronulla should win this match, but we get the feeling an upset is on the cards. Some of the Eels’ biggest stars have been publicly criticised, and true champions respond when their abilities are questioned. And maybe, just maybe, the Sharks’ bubble is about to burst. Eels by six points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live from 2pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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