Sharks v Titans
Monday 7pm (AEDT)
If legendary baseball manager Yogi Berra was preparing either of these teams for their Round 1 clash at Remondis Stadium he'd simply say this: "It's deja vu all over again."
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan has had his 12-month provisional suspension upheld and as the ASADA investigation has drawn to a close players remain on tenterhooks as to any potential infraction notices.
The Titans watched a high-profile player walk away during the off-season and are rapidly trying to construct a backline to complement a forward pack laden with representative stars.
Twelve months ago the Sharks' 12-10 triumph was described as the "most emotion-charged" in the club's 46-year history and there's little doubt the Titans will be expecting a similar reception to start 2014.
In matters to be settled on the field, both teams head into their opening game with dark injury clouds hanging over their heads. The home side will be without influential back-rower Luke Lewis for the opening month, Todd Carney has succumbed to a hamstring injury and Beau Ryan is out with a neck injury. For the Titans, boom prop Ryan James will be assessed on Monday to see whether he has sufficiently recovered from a shoulder injury.
The absence of Carney sees a shift for Wade Graham from the back row to five-eighth where he will partner the returning Daniel Holdsworth in the halves as Jeff Robson is also sidelined with a broken cheekbone. Ricky Leutele comes onto the wing in place of Ryan.
The return of Holdsworth after three years in the English Super League adds depth and experience to the Sharks' halves stocks and with former Wests Tiger Blake Ayshford making his club debut in the centres, there's plenty of potency to go with the grunt up front provided by Gallen, Fifita and Tagataese.
Like their Round 1 opponents, the Titans have bolstered their outside backs with the additions of Maurice Blair, Kalifa Faifai Loa and Brad Tighe, who arrived on the Gold Coast from Penrith in the new year in a virtual straight swap for Jamal Idris.
Rookie Paul Carter was brought in from the Bulldogs as back-up for the back-rowers but coach John Cartwright immediately started adding some versatility to his game by spending time at dummy-half and it may prove a masterstroke. With experienced No.9 Matt Srama working his way back from shoulder surgery, Carter could be Cartwright's saviour on the bench given his form in the pre-season.
Cronulla captain Paul Gallen will become the second-most capped Sharks player of all-time, moving past David Peachey to sit on 233 games. Club legend Andrew Ettingshausen holds the record with 328 games.
Watch Out Sharks: As has been the case for each of the eight pre-seasons of his career to date, much attention has been focused on the fitness of enigmatic back-rower Dave Taylor. The verdict? He's as fit as he has ever been heading into Round 1.
With a new-found love of surfing and wife Ashlee studying nutrition, Taylor is set to start 2014 in the same destructive fashion in which he finished last season. At his best there are few players in the NRL who are more difficult to contain than Taylor and if the Titans are to seriously push for premiership glory, they need their one-time Kangaroos representative firing more often than not.
A calf complaint kept the 'Coal Train' confined to the altitude chamber for the early part of the pre-season and when he went down on the opening day of the Auckland Nines the Titans medical staff immediately assumed the worst. It turned out to be a knock on the knee that ruled him out of day two but the engine is fully stoked ahead of the season proper.
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Watch Out Titans: With two codes and a host of clubs all clamouring to have brunch with his manager, the best way for Andrew Fifita to add a zero or two to his next contract is to start 2014 in the exact same manner he finished 2013.
A Wests Tiger just three years ago, Fifita became arguably the most influential big man in the game in his second season at the Sharks last year. His total of 3949 running metres for the season was almost 500 more than the next best (Brisbane's Corey Parker) and his nine tries were the most by a Sharks player and equal to that of Brett Stewart, Anthony Milford and Brett Morris.
Whether coach Peter Sharp promotes him to the starting pack or utilises him as a shock weapon from the bench remains to be seen but backing up from his exploits of last year will be the biggest challenge of his career so far.
Plays To Watch: Brad Tighe brings something that the Titans haven't had in the centres for a number of years; pure speed. With Greg Bird rough-housing anyone who tries to stop his progress down the left edge, look for Tighe to follow his co-captain closely for any offloads that come his way.
Although Flanagan's influence is supposed to have been diminished, with his assistant Peter Sharp promoted to the top job expect the Sharks to use a similar structure to that which had them on the verge of the top four in 2013. A powerful forward pack is also loaded with skill which is the perfect foundation for Holdsworth and Graham to instigate second-phase play and create space for their outside men.
Where It Will Be Won: Nothing would give Luke Douglas more satisfaction than to come home to the club where he spent the first six years of his career and celebrate breaking the record for most consecutive appearances currently held by Jason Taylor with a Titans win. If that is to happen he and the Gold Coast forwards will need to earn their side ascendancy in the middle of the park.
With Gallen, Fifita, Gibbs and Tagataese all ripping into their work in front of their home fans, the Titans workhorses will not only have to find a way to contain them but also create some opportunities of their own.
With the offloading of Gallen and Graham, footwork and power of Fifita and speed of Tagataese, the Sharks have a greater array of weapons to ask questions of the opposition defence and create more scoring opportunities for the men out wide.
The History: Played 10; Sharks 6, Titans 4. Although meetings between these two sides have been rare over the past six years, it is the Sharks who hold the edge having won four of the past five encounters. The first six games from 2008 all went with the home side and the Titans have only once tasted success at Remondis Stadium (20-16, Rd 22, 2011).
What Are The Odds: Punters give the Titans a huge hope of an upset with money slightly in their favour. They’re $2.20 outsiders with Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Grant Atkins; Sideline Officials – Chris James & Luke Potter; Video Referees – Luke Phillips & Ben Galea.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm (AEDT).
The Way We See It: There's something about a Monday night in the Shire that visiting teams find inhospitable and the home side thrives on. The battle of the forward packs should be a beauty but the loss of Carney is a significant blow to the Sharks' hopes. This will be a drag-em-out, tough-as-nails battle to the end, but the stability of the Titans halves might just be enough. Titans by 4 points.
* Statistics: Champion Data.