Schick Hydro Preview: Cronulla Sharks v Melbourne Storm
Southern Cross Group Stadium
Last year's grand finalists resume their fierce rivalry in a blockbuster top-of-the-table clash.
To add spice to an already hostile affair, it also shapes as a genuine State of Origin audition for several players vying for representative honours such as Queensland hopefuls Billy Slater and Valentine Holmes.
The Sharks side features four NSW Blues players (Jack Bird, Andrew Fifita, Wade Graham and James Maloney) while the Storm boast Maroons captain Cameron Smith and his Queensland teammates Cooper Cronk and Will Chambers as well as Blues 18th man Jordan McLean.
It's the second meeting between the two sides in 2017 after the Sharks handed the Storm the first of their two losses this season in Round 6 at AAMI Park.
On a wet and dour day, Cronulla grinded out an 11-2 win after the scores had been deadlocked at 2-all with 10 minutes to play. It took a Maloney field goal to put the visitors ahead before James Segyaro pounced on a fortunate grubber to seal the result.
Sharks captain Paul Gallen didn't surprise anyone after the match against their adversaries when he admitted: "100 per cent, we don't like each other, it's no secret."
With a number of players from both sides serving Origin duties next week, it's a valuable opportunity for both clubs to gain the two points with their full complement available.
Why the Sharks can win: The reigning premiers are enjoying a wave of confidence after playing a key role in the Blues' 28-4 dismantling of the Maroons in Game One. Maloney, Graham and Bird transferred their classy club combination to the Origin stage for New South Wales while Fifita's inspirational man-of-the-match performance stamped his status as the game's premier forward. Aspiring Queenslander Valentine Holmes is hungry to become the club's fifth representative in Game Two.
The Sharks overcame an 8-0 deficit to earn a gutsy one-point win at home against the Canterbury Bulldogs sans their Origin stars in Round 12 before a deserved bye last week. Cronulla have made a point of late to lift in front of their home crowd and there's no doubting the amount of satisfaction Sharks fans would take in handing the Storm a crucial loss. Cronulla also boast the NRL's stingiest defence, allowing just 154 points – with the second-ranked Melbourne conceding 177 points. The Sharks have conceded more than 20 points just once this season, and that came in Round 1 against the Brisbane Broncos. Since then, the only team to score more than 16 points against Cronulla were the Newcastle Knights in Round 5. They may have conceded the most errors and penalties and the fourth-most missed tackles in the league but their sturdy goal-line defence has more than made up for those troubling areas so far this season.
Why the Storm can win: Queensland captain Smith resisted the temptation to back up two days after Game One to play against the Knights last Friday night, opting to save himself for the crucial showdown with the Sharks. The Storm are determined for redemption in 2017 and beating the defending premiers may help alleviate any existing demons from last year's heart-breaking grand final defeat. Slater and McLean, in particular, are determined to impress selectors, with Maroons coach Kevin Walters suggesting this week Slater is on the brink of an Origin recall for a must-win Game Two. The 33-year-old Queensland legend was sensational for the Storm last week and another strong showing against the Sharks will stamp his return to the Origin arena. The prospect of establishing a four-point buffer atop the ladder will act as another large motivator for Craig Bellamy's side.
Key match-up: Valentine Holmes v Billy Slater. Holmes and Slater are marked as those closest in line to be called into the Queensland Maroons side. The winner of this key match-up will most likely find themselves in Game Two after coach Kevin Walters announced there would be changes to his losing side. Holmes is the incumbent Australian Kangaroos winger while Slater is coming off a scintillating two-try and two-try-assist performance last week that had pundits shouting for the legendary Queenslander's return. Both players are key in their sides' respective attacks and could prove the difference for victory.
 Telstra Premiership: Valentine Holmes vs Billy Slater
All Runs, All Run Metres, Line Breaks, Tries.
History: Sharks v Storm: Played 33; Sharks 12; Storm 21. Melbourne hold the advantage in the historical head-to-head but Cronulla have won three of the past four encounters, including last year's pulsating 14-12 grand final. The last time the two sides met at Southern Cross Group Stadium in Round 4 last season, the Sharks gritted a 14-6 win. However, the Storm have claimed seven of the past 11 clashes since 2011.
What are the odds: This is a very even betting game according to Sportsbet with Melbourne accounting for 52 per cent of the money in the head-to-head market. Both sides have been backed to win 1-12 with very little interest in either side to win 13+. Latest odds at sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Matt Cecchin, Gavin Badger Sideline Officials: Brett Suttor, Nick Beashel. Video Referees: Luke Patten, Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 7.50pm, Fox League – Live coverage from 7.50pm.
NRL.com predicts: The top two sides in the competition are evenly matched, fielding two of the best forward packs in the NRL and star-studded backlines. The halves contest between Cronulla duo Maloney and Chad Townsend and Melbourne counterparts Cronk and Cameron Munster will be another highlight in a match stacked with major storylines. The Sharks are fresh off the bye and enjoy the home-ground advantage if that counts for anything. Sharks by 2.