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Canterbury Bulldogs v Cronulla Sharks
ANZ Stadium
Monday 7pm

Beating Melbourne without Paul Gallen is one thing… but taking on the Bulldogs without both Gallen and star playmaker Todd Carney? That’s the question that must be gnawing away at Sharks fans as they prepare to make a pilgrimage of hope to ANZ Stadium on Monday night.

Meanwhile Des Hasler has spent the past week squashing the complacency that torpedoed his side at Suncorp Stadium last Friday, with the much-vaunted Bulldogs delivering a lacklustre display when falling to the lowly Titans. The surprise 25-14 loss was at odds with their blistering form from Round 9 when they tore apart Parramatta in an eight-try, 46-12 savaging.

He has a personnel headache of his own, with Josh Morris also missing to the NSW Origin camp.

A victory by Cronulla, who sit in equal second place alongside Brisbane on 14 competition points, would be excellent tonic given their daunting next two months: they will be without their superstar pairing for three games and are one of just three teams that don’t receive a pressure-relieving bye during the Origin period. However, a loss this week wouldn’t be earth-shattering, as they’d drop no lower than fourth.

And after last week’s heroics, who is to say they can’t beat the Bulldogs, and with dominance? A quick look at the stats reveals the meat to their season so far: Cronulla currently lead the league in average line-breaks, offloads, tackle-breaks and metres gained per game!

Expect the Bulldogs to have a fierce focus though: they have another tough Monday night assignment away to the Roosters next week before they rest up with the bye. Hasler knows a maximum six competition points in that time will see them nudging the top four exactly halfway through the season.

In Bulldogs personnel changes, Luke MacDougall makes his 2012 debut on the wing with Jonathan Wright shifting to the centres to cover for Morris.

Meanwhile Shane Flanagan has opted to shift lock Wade Graham to five-eighth to cover for Carney, with stand-in skipper Jeremy Smith dropping from second row to lock. Sam Tagataese has been promoted from the bench to start in the second row, with Jon Green and Tyson Frizzell the new faces on the interchange.

Watch Out Bulldogs: Bryce Gibbs must wake up every day and thank his lucky stars he left the Wests Tigers. In his new black, white and blue jersey Gibbs is currently averaging the most runs and metres gained in his decade-long career (13.3 runs and 119.4 metres) – plus he’s exhibited newfound stamina, with an 11 per cent increase in his playing time from last season.

Another Tigers discard, Andrew Fifita, really stepped up last week; coming off the bench he made a season-high 11 tackle-breaks against the Storm – no mean feat against the best defence in the NRL.  

The Bulldogs will really miss Josh Morris – he was a standout in attack last time the sides met, with 127 metres and five tackle-breaks. He’s also leading the way for tries by centres with nine in 2012.

And team-mates will need to rally around Josh Reynolds; although he’s been sensational in attack he is missing the second-most tackles by any player every week (45 to date). Expect the Sharks to send plenty of tall timber his way.

Danger Sign: Centres Ben Pomeroy and Colin Best need to be wrapped up effectively – they are the strongest-running and most creative centres in the NRL. Combined they’ve busted 73 tackles and rank second and third among three-quarters with 19 and 16 offloads respectively.  

Watch Out Sharks: Ben Barba is the clear and present danger. The Sharks did magnificently well to shut down Billy Slater last week but Barba will be a tougher prospect to halt if given half a chance off a dropped ball or defensive mistake. The No.1 leads all players for tackle-breaks (68) and his 10 line-breaks is just one shy of Greg Inglis’ benchmark in 2012.

The Bulldogs’ excellent go-forward (fifth-most metres) can be attributed to their hard-working pack, with prop Aiden Tolman a standout. The blond-haired powerhouse is averaging 116 metres a game and will be desperate to thrust his name back into consideration for future Origin games should injuries hit the current line-up. The Sharks will still be nursing bruises after their last run-in with Tolman, when he made 19 hit-ups, 160 metres and 31 tackles in just 52 minutes.

While the Sharks are flying in key stats categories they do need to watch their handling: Cronulla commit 12.6 errors per game, with only the Titans making more each week. All it will take is a few dropped balls more than that average to place them under extreme pressure.

Danger Sign: Any time the ball shifts wide into the hands of the Bulldogs’ outside backs. A staggering 70 per cent of Canterbury’s tries have been scored by their centres, wingers and fullback. And their threat from long range is huge – the Bulldogs lead the league in tries scored from within their own half (seven) as well as from between 21-50 metres out, where they’ve posted 16. Incredibly they’ve crossed for just nine tries within 10 metres of the opposition line.

Frank Pritchard v Jeremy Smith: Two hard-as-nails competitors butt heads. Pritchard has shown greater consistency this season; he ranks second for offloads among second-rowers (14) and is averaging 102 metres a game. He clawed out 117 metres against the Titans and the last time these sides met he dominated with 15 runs, 150 metres and two offloads. Stand-in Sharks skipper Smith will again relish the leadership role after taking it to the Storm pack last week. His try was the difference. The ’Dogs will need to be mindful of supports trailing Smith – he leads all second-rowers for line-break assists (four).  

Where It Will Be Won: Throwing the right pass at the right time. Cronulla rank No.1 for offloads (14.4 per game) with the Bulldogs nipping at their heels with the second-most second-phase play each week (14.2). Both sides love to throw the ball around before getting to the defensive line too – Canterbury have recorded the most passes so far (2214) with Cronulla making the second most (2120). Clearly, making the most of their passes will count on the night.

The History: Played 83; Bulldogs 51, Sharks 30, drawn 2. The Bulldogs have won six of the past eight clashes – and have lost just 15 games in their past 50 clashes. Cronulla won one of the two games played between the sides last season – their 26-10 win in Round 15 was their first over Canterbury since 2007. The Bulldogs hold a 4-3 advantage at ANZ Stadium.

The Last Time They Met: The Bulldogs defeated the Sharks 19-12 in a hard-fought Monday night clash at Toyota Stadium in Round 23 last year.

The visitors opened the scoring when lock Dean Halatau ran an inside line off a Trent Hodkinson pass to plunge over adjacent to the right upright for a 6-nil lead after 13 minutes.

The Sharks struck back when Nathan Gardner streaked through up the middle off an inside shift in the 34th minute – before Ben Barba broke Sharks fans’ hearts on the stroke of halftime with a 50-metre dash after receiving a popped ball from Greg Eastwood. There was some controversy surrounding the try, which sent the Bulldogs to the break with a 12-6 lead, with Eastwood felled but not held by the defence inside his own half before getting up and running again.

A Steve Turner penalty goal in the 58th minute extended the Bulldogs’ lead and when Turner crossed three minutes later in the right corner after fielding a Hodkinson chip kick the blue and whites looked comfortable leading 18-6.

However, Sharks interchange Sam Tagataese immediately bridged the gap to a converted try when he steamrolled through some flimsy defence from 20 metres out to make things interesting at 18-12 with 14 minutes remaining.

The following 10 minutes were tense before Hodkinson clinched the match with a field-goal from in front with two minutes left on the clock.

It was a big effort by Canterbury to overcome 35 missed tackles to still hold tight against the determined Sharks attack.

The Bulldogs owed their victory to some determined running from their back three and centres – with all five players topping triple figures in metres gained (Steve Turner leading the quintet with 142 on the night).

Paul Gallen was insatiable in his workload with 26 hit-ups for 223 metres, with three offloads and 29 tackles.

Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Chris Ward.

The Way We See It: It really is a toss of the coin but the Bulldogs should be favourites. Carney played a huge role in the Sharks’ win without Gallen. But with him also missing this week, the advantage surely shifts to Canterbury – especially at home. Bulldogs by six points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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