Schick Hydro Preview: Newcastle Knights v Cronulla Sharks
McDonald Jones Stadium
A total mismatch on paper to finish the regular season but the annual Old Boys day in the Hunter is enough to bring the Newcastle Knights right into this clash as they host the Cronulla Sharks at McDonald Jones Stadium.
The past fortnight for Nathan Brown's men has been one to forget after conceding 40+ points back-to-back against Melbourne and Canberra following their impressive three wins on the trot prior to the final run home.
Cronulla need a big win over the Knights and hope other results go their way to lock in a top four spot after their tough two-point loss to the Roosters last weekend.
These sides met back in Round 5 and after the Sharks piled on a combined 98-4 scoreline across two games last year, the defending premiers got out of jail against an improved Knights line-up in April through a James Maloney field goal on the siren at Southern Cross Group Stadium.
Newcastle's injury toll has taken a hit in recent weeks and arguably their most consistent forward in Daniel Saifiti is the latest to miss the clash – and the 2017 Rugby League World Cup – with the club confirming a shoulder reconstruction is required for the young prop.
After a strong season in the Intrust Super Premiership, Knights coach Nathan Brown will blood South Lakes junior Tyrone Amey for his NRL Telstra Premiership debut off the bench in the final round.
The Knights will use their final home game to celebrate the 20-year anniversary of their 1997 premiership and farewell departing players Dane Gagai, Joe Wardle and Mickey Paea.
For the Sharks, Sam Tagataese is out of the 21-man squad with Jeremy Latimore added to the bench. Injured utility Jack Bird has been named on the reserves list and could be a late inclusion.
Why the Knights can win: Cronulla aren't the same side in 2017, particularly in attack, and Newcastle's Round 5 effort and a stirring Old Boys day should give them enough to believe they can cause an upset on home turf. The Sharks and Knights are on par in scoring tries - both averaging at least three four-pointers per game. An even weight of possession will help. Cronulla average 51.3 per cent to rank fourth best in the Telstra Premiership, but in comparison Newcastle are starved with 46.3 per cent each game to rank last. When the Knights have had at least 50 per cent of the ball in a game this season, they've gone on to taste victory.
Why the Sharks can win: It is well documented the Sharks are riddled with incompletions and ill discipline in 2017, but their defence is where games have been won. Cronulla (63) are behind competition leaders Melbourne (56) for tries conceded, while the Knights are ranked at the bottom with Wests Tigers on 109. Shane Flanagan's men are ranked third in the Telstra Premiership for metres gained and should be too strong up front with big names in the forward pack. In return they concede the least amount of metres than any other side in the competition and wrap up the ball in a tackle better than any other side with the least offloads given.
 Telstra Premiership: Mitchell Barnett vs Paul Gallen
Hit Ups, All Runs, All Run Metres, Offloads.
The history: Played 49; Knights 27; Sharks 21; Drawn 1. Newcastle have dominated games between the two clubs in the earlier years, but the Sharks have fought back in recent seasons to string five wins in a row. Shane Flanagan's side hammered the Knights 62-0 at McDonald Jones Stadium in 2016 but in the seven clashes prior – five were decided by four points or less at the venue.
What are the odds: Sportsbet has struggled to find anyone willing to back the Knights. 99 per cent of the money invested in the head-to-head market is on Cronulla, and the Sharks have been backed off the map to win 13+ as well as cover the big start they're conceding. Latest odds at sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Henry Perenara; Assistant referee: Jon Stone; Touch judges: Kasey Badger and Tim Roby; Review Officials: Ben Galea and Jared Maxwell.
Televised: Fox League – Live from 2:00pm.
NRL.com predicts: All signs point to a comfortable Sharks victory, but not by the huge margin that occurred in 2016. Newcastle have improved a year on and will be out to ensure they put in a strong performance in front of former players and a loyal supporter base – a club who is averaging over 15,000 fans per game despite being in line to collect their third consecutive wooden spoon. However, Cronulla's defence and hunger to finish the regular season strong heading into the finals series should be enough to see them secure a much-needed win. Sharks by 12 points.