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Sharks v Dragons
Sharks Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Empowered ‘baby brother’ Cronulla will be out to embarrass out-of-sorts ‘big brother’ St George Illawarra in what looms as a lopsided local derby in the Shire of Saturday night.
The Dragons have underwhelmed in their three losses to open 2013, with last week’s bumbling 30-17 defeat to Canberra – a team that had been thrashed 36-nil in their previous outing – a tough pill for their fans to swallow. St George Illawarra may not have figured in even 50 per cent of pundits’ predictions for this year’s top eight but the way things are shaping they look so far off the pace that the bottom four rungs of the ladder beckon.

And should their downward spiral continue time will fast get away from Steve Price in his quest to prove he has the vision to take the side forward beyond this difficult period of transition for the Red V.

Meanwhile resilient Cronulla have weathered a horror few weeks to emerge as a serious force in this year’s premiership. Their form line is impressive, having downed the Titans in a nail-biter in Round 1 (that team surprising the high-flying Sea Eagles last week), then just failing to get the chocolates against the Rabbitohs, before swamping the uncoordinated Warriors 28-4 at Sharks Stadium last Sunday.

Last week’s victory, achieved with coach Shane Flanagan back in the fold, propelled them to sixth on the ladder, equal with five other sides on four competition points. Meanwhile the Dragons languish in 15th place, just a Warriors converted try away from anchoring the table. 

The Sharks have lost centre Ricky Leutele (ankle) for this week’s clash, with Ben Pomeroy set to play his first NRL game for 2013. Their only other change sees rotation hooker Isaac De Gois join the interchange at Sam Tagataese’s expense. 

Meanwhile Dragons coach Price has dropped prop Leeson Ah Mau from the squad of 17; Michael Weyman will start in the front row alongside Dan Hunt, while Jack Stockwell gets a call-up to the bench. Their only other change sees Trent Merrin start at lock, with Bronson Harrison hitting the pine.
Watch Out Sharks: The Dragons will be desperate to show their fans they are not a lost cause in 2013 so it’s likely they’ll play to their strengths – which means their strong-running outside backs are likely to see plenty of ball. The Dragons’ back three combined for a staggering 643 metres in their victory the last time the sides met, with Brett Morris as always tough to contain. The leading runner in the NRL in 2012, Morris is averaging 131 metres and has 12 tackle-breaks to date in 2013.

Plenty of experts say he’s the wrong man for the job but Dragons halfback Nathan Fien’s attacking stats compare favourably with some of the NRL’s better-performed No.7s. Fien has scored a try, set up two others and has a line-break and line-break assist to his name. That places him above his opposite number Jeff Robson (just a line-break and a try) and NSW halfback Mitchell Pearce (three line-break assists only), to name two. If Fien gets his short kicking and short passing games right he will cause damage close to the Sharks’ try line.  

Watch Out Dragons: Cronulla’s win over the Warriors further showcased the Shire side’s reliance on second-phase play to keep the action up-tempo. They made 16 offloads last week, 21 against the Rabbitohs and 11 against the Titans for an NRL-high weekly average of 16 so far. In tight the threats come from Paul Gallen (nine) and Chris Heighington (eight) while wider out Todd Carney and Luke Lewis (five each) have been prolific. 

Expect Todd Carney to test out Dragons fullback Gerard Beale with a variety of attacking kicks after the new recruit’s confidence was bruised in the loss to the Raiders. Beale failed to contest a bomb that resulted in a try to Jarrod Croker and was often late to arrive on the scene covering along the Dragons’ goal line. Clearly his defensive play is a work in progress.

Plays To Watch: Todd Carney’s long cut-out passes on the right edge; Ben Creagh actually taking the ball rather than running decoy lines on the left fringe (his obstruction cost the Dragons a try last week); John Morris continuing the form that saw him notch a try, try assist, line-break and three offloads last week; Mitch Rein taking on more responsibility close to the Sharks’ try line.

Key Match-Up: Paul Gallen v Trent Merrin. While Gallen is the benchmark for all-round value on the footy field, Merrin is developing into the Dragons’ most valuable player every week. Shifted to lock this year he’s combining great go-forward with a prolific offloading game – he is averaging 122 metres, has made an NRL-high 10 offloads and a whopping 35 tackles a game in just 63 minutes on the park each week to date. Meanwhile Gallen is averaging 190 metres, has nine offloads and is making 27 tackles in 72 minutes. Expect both players to have a say in their team’s additions to the scoreboard.

Where It Will Be Won: Defence. Even if the Dragons manage to slip their attack into a higher gear that’s only half the job done – they still need batten down the hatches in defence.

In recent seasons the Red V have earned respect for a rock-hard defensive wall but if the stats from the first three rounds are anything to go by that wall is starting to crumble. Last season St George Illawarra missed the third-fewest tackles with a touch over 28 per game. But this season only five teams have missed more tackles. Worryingly the Sharks are averaging five fewer missed tackles than their opponents this week. It’s the reason they are leaking just 2.3 line-breaks per match, compared to the Dragons’ 4.3.     

The History: Played 30; Sharks 15, Dragons 14, drawn 1. The Dragons have won six of the past 10 matches between the sides, including their biggest win over the Sharks (28-nil in 2010). But the Sharks have a dominant 9-4 record at home – most recently they defeated the Dragons 12-nil back in Round 6 last season, before falling 18-10 in Wollongong in Round 19.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Dan Eastwood; Video Referees – Luke Phillips & Luke Patten.

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm. 

The Way We See It: St George Illawarra may be 0-3 but they have been competitive for the majority of game time, only to fall away in the second half. If they can build a lead at halftime they may be some hope but up against a Sharks side that seems to have absorbed all the recent off-field drama and used it as fuel on the field, it could be a tall order. Sharks by eight points. 

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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