Cronulla Sharks v Gold Coast Titans
Saturday, 5.30pm (AEDT)
Like a shimmering oasis in a desert of defeats, this game represents short-term salvation to two teams who have just three wins in their past 18 matches between them dating all the way back to Round 18 last season.
Unfortunately for either the Sharks or the Titans, however, someone is going to land in nothing but sand while the other bathes in the welcoming waters of a win.
These are two of only three teams still winless through three rounds – the other being the Cowboys – and both are in desperate need of some good news after a trying past 12 months.
The Sharks ran headlong into a rampant Storm outfit in Melbourne last Saturday night following losses to the Raiders and Broncos at home in the opening fortnight while the Titans have dropped their two games at home by a combined total of three points to the Wests Tigers and Knights.
The Sharks' misfiring attack has been forced into a shake-up with the suspension of five-eighth Ben Barba, Wade Graham moving in to the No.6 jersey to partner Jeff Robson in the halves and Anthony Tupou elevated from the bench and into the back row.
With Sam Tagataese out through injury a spot on the Cronulla bench has been handed to exciting prospect Jack Bird to make his NRL debut.
The Titans also have a new-look halves combination with Daniel Mortimer looking at a month on the sidelines with a wrist injury and reigning under-20s player of the year Kane Elgey coming into the team to earn his first NRL call-up.
Having welcomed back Greg Bird, Dave Taylor and Beau Falloon last week a new halves combination is less than ideal for a team trying to finally settle on their best 17 although Elgey has shown promise in the trials and early rounds of the Intrust Super Cup.
Chris Heighington celebrates a significant milestone on Saturday playing his 250th NRL game while William Zillman plays his 150th in what is the Titans' 200th premiership fixture since entering the competition in 2007.
Watch Out Sharks: He's soured the memories of his own wedding, been stripped of the club captaincy and is currently embroiled in a drugs scandal to which he has pled not guilty; it's been a horror off-season for Titans lock Greg Bird. But with a restricted preparation Bird was back to his old self on the field on Sunday, playing 65 minutes, running for 136 metres, racking up 24 tackles as well as three tackle busts and an offload in his first game for 2015. Expect an even bigger effort in his second game back against his old club and opposite good mate Paul Gallen.
Watch Out Titans: The 2013 Dally M Prop of the Year played just 12 games in 2014 but it is clear through three rounds that Andrew Fifita is on the verge of the form that elevated him to Origin and Test honours two years ago. Although his numbers were down slightly in Melbourne last week, Fifita is still averaging more than 156 metres per game from three starts with an average per carry of 9.77 metres. His 15 tackle busts make him an ever-present threat in the middle of the ruck and gives his team great momentum to roll down field. The Titans had trouble containing the likes of Kade Snowden and Korbin Sims in the middle last week; it goes to another level again when Fifita and Gallen are on the charge.
Key Match-Up: Jeff Robson v Kane Elgey. The battle-hardened veteran of 136 first grade games across nine seasons against the flashy new kid on the block making his NRL debut will be an intriguing aspect to this contest. The playmaking responsibility for the Sharks will fall more to Robson with Barba on the sidelines while Elgey will be encouraged to showcase his skills alongside Titans five-eighth Aidan Sezer. If the Sharks are to win Robson will have played a leading hand but all Elgey needs is to play a solid supporting role to put the Titans in the box seat.
History: Played 11; Sharks 6; Titans 5. The Titans have opened their past two seasons at Remondis against the Sharks with Cronulla earning an ugly 12-10 win in the wake of the ASADA allegations in 2013 and the Titans nabbing the two competition points 18-12 last year. Although the Titans went winless in their first three visits to the Shire the past four matches between these teams at the venue have been split two apiece.
What Are The Odds: Sharks ($1.50) v Titans ($2.60). Surprisingly there’s 60 per cent more money wagered on the Titans than the Sharks despite Cronulla opening as strong favourites. Gold Coast are also more popular in line betting, where they’re receiving 5.5 points start. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Did You Know: Captain Paul Gallen is the only current Sharks player to have turned out for the club on more occasions (241 appearances) than Titans prop Luke Douglas. Douglas played 146 consecutive games for the Sharks between 2006-2011 winning 56 of them and scoring 10 tries.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm (AEDT)
Match Officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee: Matt Noyen; Touch Judges: David Ryan and Phil Henderson; Video Referees: Shayne Hayne and Henry Perenara.
The Way We See It: Desperate times call for desperate measures but it will be the team that can find their composure first that will take control of this result. Ordinarily you would suggest that the home team may boast something of an edge but the Sharks have won just two of their past 14 games at Remondis while the Titans' away record last year was better than their efforts at home. The Titans looked a far more cohesive unit against the Knights last week but the soft tries they conceded through the middle are of concern against a team such as the Sharks. Cronulla by 4.