Tigers v Sharks
Just one more week. That's the situation here for two outfits that are bringing to a close arguably the most tumultuous years in their club's respective histories.
Bear in mind we're only saying 'arguably' for the sake of the Tigers, whose whopping injury toll and off-field squabbles in 2014 are regrettably not the first such distractions to derail a black and gold campaign this century.
There's no debate when it comes to the Sharkies' annus horribilis and where it sits in Cronulla's 47 years on this here green earth. From ASADA to Todd Carney's inglorious exit, to the two coaches that have departed and the 2000-plus first grade games sidelined through injury and suspension, the Sharks' year is not just the toughest the club has endured, but just about the roughest of any club this side of Dally Messenger's defection to the 13-man code.
So when we say there's just one more week left for these two sides, there's also two ways for them to look at it. The first, and most tempting, is just a final, miserable 80 minutes to slog through before tickets out of the country can be booked, the pillows on the counsellor's couch can be fluffed and the whole sorry mess can be put behind them.
Or it can be just one more week to garner themselves, their club and long-suffering fans a smidge of redemption. The Tigers, with 18 errors and a completion rate of 55 per cent against the Raiders sealing an eighth loss from their past nine starts, took another step back from said redemption in the nation's capital last week.
The Sharks – with just four regular first graders and a side comprising a former groundsman and a bunch of reserve graders – took a mighty leap toward it with that outstanding effort over 2000km from home against a crack Cowboys outfit.
Whether they can pick themselves up after a heart-warming and at the same time heart-breaking one-point loss, particularly on the short five-day turn around, is a massive ask, but one you can't put past the boys from the Shire after Monday night.
For the home side there's but a single change from Mick Potter, who brings in Cory Paterson to the bench for Brendan Santi. Cronulla welcome back Tinirau Arona and Michael Lichaa for his last game with the club, which pushes Junior Roqica and Pat Politoni to the pine.
Watch Out Tigers: We're told you can't get fireworks down Canberra way these days, which is a shame for Potter because he sure could use them waking his side up in time for kick-off. The Tigers have conceded a whopping 76 points to nada in the first 40 minutes of the past four games, including tries within the first 180 seconds against the Raiders, Roosters and Cowboys. Off the back of the worst possible start each of those games has slid away from the Tigers faster than a chubby kid on a greased-up slippery dip, and rectifying their woeful starting record with an early strike of their own – or at least 10 minutes without conceding points – must be numero uno on the agenda.
Watch Out Sharks: The hype around the fleet-of-foot Luke Brooks and Mitch Moses in Tiger Town is well and truly justified, but sneaking under the radar of most pundits with his best Des Hasler impression has been the Tigers Mr. Fix-It Blake Austin. Thrown in at every position bar the front row this year, Austin was returned to his preferred No. 6 jumper against the Raiders, and didn't he look right at home. The 23-year-old bagged a try, should have had another, made two line breaks and broke 10 tackles to keep the Tigers in the game, and proved if given half a shot at the line he will back himself to get there.
Plays To Watch: It can't be easy being on the end of a backline that has engineered less tries than any other in the game, but Sosaia Feki sure is making the most of the limited opportunities he's getting thrown his way out wide. His double against the Cowboys took his tally for the year to nine, and that should be enough to see Mick Gordon drifting to the left and pumping that left-side shift for all it's worth in the hope of the 23-year-old can turn on another one of those physics and touchline defying put-downs.
Where It Will Be Won: Pride. Both sides have been decimated by injuries, suspension and everything but a plague of locusts over the back end of the year, so in the words of Brad Fittler, whichever team most wants to be "the pigeon and not the statue" for once this year will be coming up trumps. There's no prouder man in league than Tigers skipper Robbie Farah, and his competitive edge, as well as the return to Leichhardt could tip the desire stakes slightly toward the home outfit, particularly with the Sharks already running one hell of a race in Townsville.
The History: Played 24; Tigers 16, Sharks 7, 1 draw. The Sharks may have bagged two wins in 2013 over the Tigers, but up until that point it's been slim pickings for the Shire men; the Tigers have collected the bickies in 14 of 17 clashes over the last decade. Their record at their Inner-West fortress has been dented by three losses this year, but it still stands at a handy 14 from their last 20 at Leichhardt.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet customers have been all over the Sharks in head-to-head betting since they put up such a fight against the Cowboys in Townsville – nearly four times the money compared to the home side. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Reynolds & Adam Gee; Touch Judges – Paul Holland & Belinda Sleeman; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live, 3pm.
How We See It: For one of these sides 2014 will end on some semblance of a high... Unless it's a draw. Then the rugby league gods are just having a laugh. But as much as the Sharks deserve to sing Up, Up Cronulla after that stirring performance against the Cowboys, the energy that would've taken out of them and the influence of Robbie Farah and Leichhardt Oval is just too much for us to go past. Tigers by eight points.