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Sharks v Titans
Sharks Stadium
Sunday, 6.30pm

Expectations of Cronulla and Gold Coast might colour different shades of the NRL spectrum in 2013 but, as the highly touted Wests Tigers of 2012 can attest, expectations mean virtually nothing – and will mean even less come kick-off.

The Sharks and Titans enter the new season in completely different headspaces – Cronulla, after a foray into the finals last season, looking to delve deeper in 2013; the Gold Coast desperately searching for improvement after an 11th-place finish in 2012 that ultimately papered over some significant cracks.

The reported uncertainty surrounding the Sharks’ make-up for their season opener given ASADA’s ongoing investigations leaves some question marks over this clash but regardless, thoughts of a first long-awaited title in 2013 are at the forefront of Sharks supporters’ minds – and for good reason, too. 

This year they’ve secured the services of several big names, including former Penrith duo Michael Gordon and Luke Lewis, in addition to former Wests Tigers Chris Heighington and Beau Ryan, and former Bulldogs back Jonathan Wright. It’s a fair line-up – arguably the best the Sharks have put on the park in more than a decade.

The Titans, meanwhile, are realistically only looking to challenge for a top-eight berth – anything more than that would label them the league’s super-achievers. There have also been significant changes to their roster, following the departure of pivotal playmaker Scott Prince to the Broncos. The Titans’ forwards, however, have been strengthened following the signing of former Bronco and Rabbitoh Dave Taylor – a match-turning monster who, if he captures consistency throughout 2013, could prove the buy of the season. 

With trial wins over Manly and Newcastle under their belt the Sharks have named Gordon at fullback, relegating dynamic No.1 Nathan Gardner to the NSW Cup, with recruits Jonathan Wright and Ryan named on the flanks. Lewis has also secured a spot in the starting side, named in 11, with coach Shane Flanagan naming a seven-man bench that at this stage includes new recruit Heighington. Centre Ben Pomeroy (groin – Round 3) and prop Bryce Gibbs (Achilles – Round 10) are the only players unavailable.

The Titans, after winning trials against the Broncos and Warriors, have named Aidan Sezer and Albert Kelly as their new halves pairing, with Nate Myles and Greg Bird joint captains following Prince’s departure. Ex-Rooster Brad Takairangi has been named in the centres, with recruit Taylor taking the place of 220-game forward Mark Minichiello who has been dropped to the Queensland Cup. 

Watch Out Sharks: Even in a disappointing season in 2012 the Titans proved they have the muscle to stop teams rolling down-field. The Gold Coast conceded an admirable average of just 1340 metres per game (fifth in the NRL) in 2012, and if they combine that with tighter goal-line defence, it’ll certainly prove tough to crack them open in 2013. 

Combine a reworked goal-line defensive structure with Cronulla’s record of just 18.4 points per game last season – fourth fewest in the NRL – and there could be reason for Titans fans to hold hope in this game.

Watch Out Titans: The Sharks can slip through tackles – their 2012 record of 33.5 tackle busts a game (seventh most) demonstrates that – and they’re going to be even more slippery and tough to handle this season after signing two noted line-breakers. 

Seemingly unwanted at the foot of the mountains, the Sharks sunk their teeth into Gordon and Lewis, securing them on multi-year deals, and the signings will have a big influence on their attack. Gordon (37 tackle-breaks in seven games) and Lewis (41 tackle-breaks in 13 games) could just be the spark the Sharks’ attack has been searching for.

Plays To Watch: William Zillman’s full-pelt charges from kick-returns (he averaged 125.5 metres per game last season); Todd Carney’s cross-field drifts and searches for support; Albert Kelly zipping, bouncing, bopping and bobbing around with and without the ball when his new team’s on the attack; Paul Gallen’s fearless and fatigueless efforts in attack and defence (he averaged 193.6 metres and 27.1 tackles in 2012); Dave Taylor’s lumbering, bullying runs that often end in the prospect of a one-handed offload as he falls to the turf like timber to the forest floor (he popped 42 last season).

Key Match-Up: Wade Graham v Greg Bird. It is almost a case of the old and the new – very similar styles of players at very different stages of their careers – in a clash that could decide the outcome of this clash.

Graham and Bird could well be brothers – the similarities are that striking in their games at least, from their junior days to present day. Both back-rowers now, they were both brought to the Sharks as talented, confident No.6s…  and they’ve ended up with their heads in the scrum.

Graham, a former Panther in his fifth year of first grade, is a rugged and talented ball-playing back-rower equally likely to pop a match-winning pass as deliver a match-turning hit. As is Titan Greg Bird, who debuted in Cronulla colours in 2002 and has played five Tests for Australia and 11 matches for NSW. 

Where It Will Be Won: They’re two huge forward packs – and they’re the strength of both teams. Featuring a stack of size, skill and experience, this match will be won up front.
The Sharks’ pack – touted as one of the best in the comp – features rising star Andrew Fifita, fearless former Maroon Ben Ross, Australian star Lewis, back-rower Graham and inspirational captain Gallen. Then international Chris Heighington comes off the bench; altogether plenty of reason why the majority of this pack helped the Sharks to second rank for metres gained last year, with more than 1410 a match! 

Don’t expect the Titans to be overwhelmed though – they have their own stars in the scrum. Reliable workhorse Luke Douglas (105.8 metres per game in 2012), Golden Boot nominee Myles (120.1 metres), Blues star Bird (123 metres) and Maroon Ashley Harrison (104 metres) are due to start – then Taylor (118.1 metres, 97 tackle-breaks and six try assists), almost the size of the Titanic, and warhorse Bailey (102.5 metres) come off the bench. 

Which pack will win this battle? The forward pack of the team that wins the match!

The History: Played 9; Sharks 5, Titans 4. The record at Sharks Stadium is decidedly in the home team’s favour – Cronulla have won four of the past five clashes at their HQ.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Shane Rehm; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Jason Robinson.

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 6.30pm.

The Way We See It: The Sharks’ halves – Todd Carney and Jeff Robson – should have too much experience and class to let this game slip in front of their home fans. We suspect they’ll be given plenty of room to move in attack on the back of their incredibly powerful forward pack – and we reckon they’ll make the most of the space, too. The Titans, though, have their own threats in attack and defence. It mightn’t be as one-sided as some suspect it might be. We’re leaning towards the Sharks on home soil though. Cronulla by seven points.

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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