Sharks v Broncos
Friday, 8.35pm (AEDT)
It may only be Round 2 of the NRL Telstra Premiership but this clash represents a crunch game between two teams eager to claim their first victory of the season.
Both the Sharks and the Broncos can (temporarily) silence the armchair critics who slated their sides' performances so early in the season.
With coach Wayne Bennett back on board and the signing of some key positional players, a loss to the Sharks would have the alarm bells at Red Hill whaling even louder those on Cronulla Beach.
Of course it's still early days, but with fixtures against the Cowboys (home) and the Warriors (away) still to come in March, starting the season with four losses becomes a distinct possibility for the Broncos.
The Sharks also have to deal with a short Sunday-to-Friday turnaround, although new Cronulla hooker Michael Ennis told NRL.com that the clash with Brisbane can't come soon enough.
Given that it's only Round 2 fitness issues shouldn’t be a problem for Cronulla and with a cool change in the weather expected for Friday and an 8.35pm kick-off (local time), the heat won't be a factor.
In team news, Bennett has wielded the axe, naming a new-look interchange bench featuring Test and Origin star Sam Thaiday.
As a result, Matt Gillett takes Thaiday's place in the starting line-up with 2014 Holden Cup stars Joe Ofahengaue and Kodi Nikorima added to the bench alongside Jarrod Wallace.
Aaron Whitchurch, Mitchell Dodds (calf injury) and James Gavet (suspended) are the players who have made way, while Corey Oates will line up on the wing after Dale Copley picked up a hamstring injury.
Cronulla boss Shane Flanagan has named an unchanged side with Valentine Holmes and Sami Sauiluma added an extended bench.
Watch out Sharks: He may be relatively unknown outside Broncos circles, but there are big wraps on young prop Joe Ofahengaue. The nephew of former Australian rugby union forward Willie Ofahengaue who played 41 Tests for the Wallabies between 1990 and 1998, 19-year-old Joe dominated the Holden Cup in 2014. He finished the year with the most hit-ups in the Holden Cup and also took out Brisbane’s NYC Player of the Year award. Told by Wayne Bennett as little as two months ago that he wouldn't play NRL this season, it's only taken two weeks for the 187cm, 112kg wrecking ball to be called upon by the master coach. His inclusion, along with skilful 20-year-old half Kodi Nikorima will give the Broncos some added zing off the bench.
Watch out Broncos: Ben Barba had a mixed night against the Raiders although it's way too early to pass judgement on Cronulla's prized summer signing. Barba had confidence in spades during his Dally M-winning season of 2012, but a variety of personal issues have surfaced since then and they've clearly had an effect on the 25-year-old. Despite not putting on a performance reminiscent of his Bulldogs days in his first outing for Cronulla, Barba still managed two try assists – laying on the final passes for Sosaia Feki and Ricky Leutele – while also registering two line-break assists. It took Barba until Round 7 to score his first try for the Broncos and Sharks fans will hope he can open his account against his former side on Friday night.
Key Match-Up: Paul Gallen v Corey Parker. They made their NRL debuts less than three months apart, are both one-club men, prefer playing in the No.13 jumper and have 542 games of top-grade experience between them, however their performances in Round 1 were poles apart. Parker endured a forgettable 300th match against Souths. Capable of playing the full 80 minutes, the 32-year-old only played 58 minutes in Round 1 with 17 of those minutes spent as a dummy-half replacement for Andrew McCullough. Parker was the offload king last season, leading the competition with 69 offloads, but was unable to get any second-phase play going against the Rabbitohs. Broncos assistant coach Kevin Waters admitted on radio after their opening-round loss that the idea to play Parker at dummy-half was a mistake and to not expect that tactic to surface again.
Gallen made three offloads in a typically bustling Round 1 display but more importantly the 33-year-old notched up a whopping 207 running metres from 23 runs, compared to Parker's 67 metres from eight carries. Injury and suspension restricted Gallen to only nine NRL appearances in 2014, although he managed to average 160 metres and 32 tackles per game, as well as accumulating 24 offloads and 34 tackle busts in the process.
The History: Played 49; Sharks 19, Broncos 30. The Broncos have held a clear head-to-head advantage over the Sharks since they entered the competition in 1988, although Cronulla have won the past three clashes against Brisbane. Prior to their recent victories, the Sharks had only won three of the past 15 matches against Brisbane dating back to 2004. Brisbane may want to forget their meeting with the Sharks in Round 16 last year. Leading 22-0 early in the second half, Cronulla scored four unanswered tries to pip the Broncos 24-22.
Did You Know: Broncos pair Dale Copley and Ben Hunt both made their NRL debuts against the Sharks at Shark Park in Round 15, 2009. With a host of Origin stars missing it was a rough start to life in the top grade as they were on the end of a 46-12 hiding, with Blake Ferguson scoring a hat-trick for Cronulla. Just two players who played for the Sharks that day – Mitch Brown and Anthony Tupou – will line up against the Broncos on Friday.
What Are The Odds: Cronulla Sharks $1.90 Brisbane Broncos $1.90. There’s no separating them in the betting and punters agree, with a 50/50 split of the money. Sosaia Feki ($11) is the punters' pick so far to be first try-scorer. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referees: Lead Referee: Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee: Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges: Jeff Younis and Adam Gee; Video Referees: Ashley Klein and Henry Perenara.
Televised: Channel Nine – 7.30pm Qld (Live); 9.30pm NSW (delayed).
The Way We See It: As mentioned earlier, this is a crunch game for both teams. A win can kick-start their season, whereas a loss mounts further unwanted pressure. The Broncos clearly have more to lose if another result goes against them and because of this, you'd expect a reaction in the form of an improved performance from Bennett's men. Applying early pressure will be crucial to the outcome and if Brisbane can start well, they should be able to open their 2015 account against the Sharkies. Broncos by eight points.