Schick Hydro Preview: St George Illawarra Dragons v Cronulla Sharks
UOW Jubilee Oval
Their winning streak was ended two weeks ago, and now the Sharks' unbeaten run has come to an end after 16 matches.
And while every team would love to win every game they play, you get the feeling their 30-14 loss at home to the Raiders might be the much-debated 'loss they had to have'.
Still firmly entrenched in the Telstra Premiership top two, the Sharks have the perfect opportunity to bounce back against their bitter rivals in what should be a hard-fought local derby.
The Dragons will head into the Round 23 encounter on the back of five straight losses and their finals hopes all but dashed following a 12-8 defeat at the hands of the Broncos last week.
For 75 minutes they looked all at sea – the conditions didn't help – but once they broke the shackles and forgot about structures, they played like a side worthy of a top-eight finish.
Now that their season is virtually over, which Dragons will we see for the next four weeks?
Josh Dugan (jaw) returns for the first time since Origin III and will replace Adam Quinlan at fullback. Back-rowers Joel Thompson and Tyson Frizell are both back from suspension, shifting Will Matthews to an extended bench and Tyrone McCarthy out of the side altogether.
The Sharks have regained the service of Michael Ennis (virus), who comes in for Matt McIlwrick. Joseph Paulo and Ricky Leutele replace Sam Tagataese and Fa'amanu Brown on the bench.
Watch out Dragons: It's never fun taking on a points-scoring machine when you've got the second worst attack in the competition. The Dragons have managed just 257 points in 2016, while the Sharks have scored 513, the second most in the NRL. Throw in Cronulla's impressive defensive record (322 points allowed) and the forecast doesn't look promising for a Red V team that has only reached 20 points four times this year.
Watch out Sharks: Kurt Mann has come a long way since these sides met in Round 2. Playing fullback on that occasion, he made four errors in what was a tough afternoon in the Shire. He subsequently sat out the next 10 weeks, but has returned a different player on the wing. Mann has found a new lease of life on the edge, shooting to the top of the try-scoring list at the Dragons with eight in his past seven starts.
Key match-up: Euan Aitken v Jack Bird. This should be a classic battle between two of the in-form centres of the Telstra Premiership. Euan Aitken has shone on both sides of the field in 2016 after recently moving to the left a few weeks ago. He added to his streak of 10 straight games with over 100 running metres against the Broncos, gaining a season-high 216 metres in the wet. His defence, power and ability to find the line will be tested by Bird, with the Blues incumbent showing no signs of second year syndrome. The Sharks centre is averaging just over 100 metres per game this season, has broken 67 tackles and scored six tries, and will be keen to put more hurt on the team he played his junior footy with.
The history: Played 37; Dragons 18, Sharks 18, Drawn 1. The Sharks have won the past two meetings between the sides in convincing fashion, but the Dragons had won nine of the previous 12 before that. It was one-way traffic when they met earlier in the season, with the Rev V striking first through the boot of Gareth Widdop, only for the men from the Shire to pile on 30 unanswered points in the final 47 minutes.
What are the odds: The Sharks are the best backed side of the round according to Sportsbet and Cronulla 13+ is all the rage with punters. Valentine Holmes is the best backed to score the first try of the game. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton. Assistant referee: Chris Butler. Sideline officials: Michael Wise and Jason Walsh.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7:30pm.
The way we see it: They might have suffered their first loss in nearly five months against the Green Machine, but Cronulla fans shouldn't get used to that losing feeling. The return of Michael Ennis makes them a completely different side in attack, and they should comfortably extend the Dragons' recent woes with a big win. Sharks by 16.