Shick Hydro Preview: Cronulla Sharks v Gold Coast Titans
Southern Cross Group Stadium
For the second season in succession the Titans are handing a half an NRL debut at the home ground of the Sharks but will Cameron Cullen have the same immediate influence that Kane Elgey did 12 months earlier?
Elgey's introduction in Round 4 last season saw the Titans scrape past the Sharks 24-22 thanks largely to a James Roberts intercept try and the team progressed to win four of their next five games.
The visitors have gotten off to a brighter start in 2016 but an experiment with former Shark Greg Bird back at five-eighth against Brisbane last week was not effective so coach Neil Henry will blood Cullen instead.
It's yet another disrupted preparation for a Titans team that has been unable to field the same side two weeks in a row this season who will face a Sharks outfit looking more settled and menacing with each week that passes.
The addition of captain Paul Gallen against the Wests Tigers was a timely boost on the back of a short turnaround and coach Shane Flanagan has been able to name the same 17 for Sunday, Gerard Beale included as 18th man.
Since their 24-22 loss to the Titans last season the Sharks have won six of their past nine games at home and stole a one-point win on the Gold Coast in Round 10 last year courtesy of a Valentine Holmes field goal.
Watch out Sharks: 12 months ago the debut of Kane Elgey conspired to sink the Sharks and another NRL rookie half shapes as the Titans' most dangerous weapon this Sunday. Given a level of responsibility that his experience would not normally warrant against the Broncos last week, Ashley Taylor refused to be daunted and fought through a shoulder injury to help engineer his side's comeback from 16 points down. His kicking game close to the line has shown to be one of the finest in the NRL and his five try assists puts him second only to Johnathan Thurston among the competition's leading playmakers. With debutant Cameron Cullen alongside him, Taylor will be the danger man when the Titans enter the Sharks' red zone.
Watch out Titans: We've been waiting three years to see some semblance of the Ben Barba that enraptured the NRL in 2012 and more than at any other time that spark seems to be returning. He has scored three tries in the first five weeks of 2016 and each of those have coincided with a Sharks victory, including the past two weeks against the Storm and Wests Tigers. His seven tackle busts last week was second only to James Tedesco and he is equal for try-saving tackles with Greg Inglis. A sunny Sunday at Shark Park might just be the perfect stage for Barba to light up the NRL again.
Key match-up: Paul Gallen v Greg Bird. It's impossible not to look at the match-up of these two teams and not be drawn to the head-to-head confrontation that will occur between 'Blues Brothers' Gallen and Bird. Two close mates who spent seven seasons together at Cronulla, Gallen and Bird bring markedly different skill sets to their respective teams but each represent the spiritual heart. In his first game since Round 1 last week Gallen ran for 154 metres, had three tackle busts, an offload and a line break while Bird struggled with coming to grips with a late switch to five-eighth. With a return to lock forward expect Bird to be much more around the middle of the field on Sunday and to make it his personal mission to keep Gallen quiet.
The history: Played 13; Sharks 7, Titans 6. The youngest of the Sharks rivalries, the Titans have been victorious in their past two visits to Cronulla but have a record of just three wins from eight previous meetings in the Shire. The past three years have seen close contests between these two sides with their past four clashes being decided by six points or less.
What are the odds? Sharks $1.30, Titans $3.55. All of the early money has gone on the Titans due to the big price of $5 that was offered by Sportsbet. Gold Coast have been the big firmers as a result but the Sharks have been popular to win by 1-12 in the winning margin market. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Grant Atkins. Assistant Referee: Alan Shortall. Touch Judges: Jason Walsh and Tim Roby. Review Officials: Bryan Norrie and Steve Chiddy. Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm
How we see it: The Sharks are showing the signs that many predicted would carry them into the top four before the season kicked off. Their mix of hardened forwards and exciting young backs is combining well and Barba is nearing his brilliant best. The clash of the forwards will be intense early on but the class of the Sharks backline may be more effective at taking advantage of any opportunities that arise. Sharks by four points.