Schick Hydro Preview: Cronulla Sharks v St George Illawarra Dragons
The Sharks and Dragons head into the local derby on the back of encouraging away losses to two teams that made last year's top four.
The Dragons gave up an early 10-point lead in Melbourne to go down by a conversion, while the Sharks rallied from an early 12-point deficit, only for the Cowboys to score late to snatch a 20-14 win.
Cronulla's new combinations looked good in their first NRL game together, with Jack Bird making the most of his move to the centres, while for the Dragons, Josh Dugan's much publicised move from fullback to the three-quarter line is still a work in progress.
Jayson Bukuya replaces skipper Paul Gallen (knee) at lock, while Gerard Beale and Joseph Paulo come onto the bench. Chris Heighington will miss the derby through suspension.
The Dragons have made one positional change to the side that lost to the Storm, with Tyson Frizell starting and Jack de Belin dropping back to the bench.
Watch out Sharks: The Dragons were the kings of afternoon football in 2015, recording five 13+ wins in daylight fixtures, including a 42-6 rout of the Sharks at WIN Stadium in Round 12. The Red V weren't overly flashy against the Storm on Monday night, but will relish the chance to play in dry conditions this weekend. Expect players like Benji Marshall and Gareth Widdop to come into their own, while fullback Kurt Mann will be better for the run after a quiet showing against his former club.
Watch out Dragons: Jack Bird starred for the Dragons in the Holden Cup, but now the Berkeley Eagles junior is a mainstay for their bitter rivals. Bird had an outstanding debut season, scoring eight tries as a running five-eighth and going on to be named Dally M Rookie of the Year. It looked like he would start 2016 in the No.1 jersey, but instead lined up at right centre against the Cowboys in Round 1, running for 154 metres and scoring his side's second try. In a game based on structure, the 20-year-old has the class to create something out of nothing, and will be keen to torment his former suitors.
Key match-up: James Maloney v Gareth Widdop. The 2012 premiership-winning five-eighth comes up against the 2013 premiership-winning five-eighth. Both men have moved on from the Storm and Roosters respectively, and are the left-edge conductors for their new clubs. Maloney looked comfortable in his first NRL game as a Shark, forcing several line dropouts with his deft kicking game. Widdop was solid last week, but an uncharacteristic missed penalty goal from him proved the difference against the Storm. Expect both men to run the ball a lot more in what should be glorious conditions for attacking rugby league.
The history: Played 36; Sharks 17, Dragons 18, Drawn 1. The Dragons have dominated the derby in recent years, winning six of the past 10 clashes, including two of the past three at Shark Park. Last year's encounters were won easily by the home side, with the Dragons cruising to a 42-6 win in Round 12, while the Sharks ran out 28-8 winners six weeks later.
What are the odds: All of the early money was on the Dragons at the bigger price, but since their loss to the Storm on Monday night, Sportsbet has hardly seen any interest in St George-Illawarra and the Sharks price has firmed. Cronulla 1-12 seems to be the way most of the punters are going in the local derby. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin. Assist Referee: Alan Shortall. Sideline Officials: Nick Beashel, Jason Walsh.
Televised: Channel Nine (Live) – 4:00pm. Fox Sports 1 (Live) coverage from 3:30pm AEDT.
The way we see it: Neither of these teams deserve to start the season 0-2, but that's the situation facing the loser of Sunday's derby. The Sharks would have been red-hot favourites had Paul Gallen been fit, and his absence opens the door for the Dragons to sniff out an upset. In what's shaping as a mouth-watering derby, we're tipping the home ground advantage to get the Sharks over the line. Sharks by 4.