Schick Hydro Preview: Cronulla Sharks v Parramatta Eels
Southern Cross Stadium
Remarkably, it's been six weeks since either of these two teams tasted defeat – easily the longest such run of any game this weekend with every other match featuring a team looking to hit back from a last-start loss.
The Sharks are obviously on a club-record 11-run streak while the Eels brushed off a couple of poor efforts in the immediate wake of their salary cap penalty and have won three straight (with two byes) over the past five rounds.
The incredible run for the Sharks sees them alone at the top of the ladder after 16 rounds, not having tasted defeat since all the way back in Round 3 and part of that success has been a favourable run with injury.
After missing last week with a minor strain, winger Sosaia Feki returns pushing Ricky Leutele to an extended bench in coach Shane Flanagan's only change.
The Eels have named winger Semi Radradra to retain his wing spot despite uncertainty around the flying Fijian's extended trip home over the bye week and are also boosted by the return of Origin centre Michael Jennings in place of Vai Toutai.
Cody Nelson has been called up on the bench with back-up hooker Kaysa Pritchard missing due to a knee injury in the only other change from the team that easily accounted for South Sydney a fortnight ago.
Watch out Sharks: Despite all the dramas off the field (which also includes a mountain of injuries to their halves) the Eels keep getting it done on the field and that's in large part due to a belligerent forward pack that has proved a handful for almost every team they've faced this year. The Sharks have the cattle to handle any pack in the NRL but the likes of Manu Ma'u, Tepai Moeroa, Peni Terepo, the resurgent Beau Scott and young gun Daniel Alvaro are relentlessly hard runners who can break a tackle or find an offload almost at will. Young winger Bevan French is yet to play an NRL game without scoring a try while half Corey Norman continues to pull the strings even without a recognised playmaker alongside him.
Watch out Eels: How do you beat the Sharks? The Bulldogs thought they did a few weeks ago only to be denied by a late try and sideline conversion. Ditto the Warriors last week who eventually went down in golden point to a team that just scraps and claws its way to wins even when it looks like they're gone. Hardened forwards like Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Wade Graham and hooker Mick Ennis – in something like career best form – set the platform. Their halves balance each other perfectly and in a break from recent seasons Cronulla have serious firepower in their outside backs with the likes of Ben Barba, Valentine Holmes and Jack Bird capable of capitalising on every half chance.
Key match-up: Ben Barba v Michael Gordon. As we've all seen the once-maligned Sharks fullback is approaching career-best form this year in the Shire while Eels veteran Gordon continues to defy father time with a series of assured performances that bring no shortage of zip. Barba is winning the tries race 9-3 though Gordon as a goalkicker has more points next to his name. He edges the try assists 7-2 and tackle breaks 53-44 but Gordon's safe presence at the back has been a big part of the Eels racking up the wins this year.
The history: Played 81; Sharks 42, Eels 39. A slight historical advantage to the boys from the Shire but the Eels have four wins from the past six meetings. A last-start win at Southern Cross Group Stadium late last year broke a three-game losing run at the venue for the blue and golds.
What are the odds: Sportsbet punters don't believe the Cronulla bubble is about to burst, with four times the amount of money on the Sharks to knock off the Eels in the head to head market. Those backing Parramatta are fairly keen on the start in line betting. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Ashley Klein. Assistant referee: Adam Gee. Sideline officials: Jeff Younis and Rohan Best. Review officials: Luke Patten and Jason Robinson. Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7.30pm.
The way we see it: The Eels are more than nuisance value this year – their performances have them in fourth place prior to their imminent points deduction. However at Cronulla against a seemingly unstoppable Sharks side we'll back the home side to get the job done by 10 points.