Schick Hydro Preview: Cronulla Sharks v Canterbury Bulldogs
Southern Cross Group Stadium
It shapes as a fairly even contest between the Cronulla Sharks and Canterbury Bulldogs on Saturday night with both sides missing key personnel and calling in a host of players from the Intrust Super Premiership.
Both the Bulldogs and Sharks have been guilty of conceding most of their four-pointers in the opening half of games this season before tightening up their defence in the second stanza and piling on points at the backend.
The Sharks are in a more comfortable position sitting in third on the NRL Telstra Premiership ladder after 11 rounds on the back of strong defence, while the Bulldogs sit just outside the top eight based on for and against.
While four players (James Maloney, Wade Graham, Jack Bird and Andrew Fifita) have been named for NSW, the defending premiers have been boosted over the State of Origin period this season with skipper Paul Gallen available after announcing his retirement from representative rugby league back in 2016.
Queensland's decision to overlook Australian international Valentine Holmes for Game I is also a positive for the Sharks, while Edrick Lee has been named to play against former Raiders teammate Brenko Lee in the centres.
For the Bulldogs, they'll be without NSW trio Josh Jackson, Brett Morris and David Klemmer with 23-year-old Francis Tualau set to make his Telstra Premiership debut off the bench and fullback Will Hopoate set to take his place in the No.1 jersey after declaring himself available for Sunday football a week ago.
Why the Sharks can win: Defence wins matches and despite the premiers not being at their best so far in 2017, they're still managing to concede the least amount of points (146) to start the season after 11 rounds - averaging less than 13.5 per game. Shane Flanagan's third-placed outfit are averaging 19.8 points scored per game. To compare, the Titans (11th) and Panthers (12th) are well ahead on points scored but are in the bottom eight due to their struggles to defend their line.
Why the Bulldogs can win: The visitors can expose the poor discipline from the home side with the premiers still ranking in the top two for most errors (133), missed tackles (387) and penalties conceded (87) in the NRL Telstra Premiership. Des Hasler's men are second behind St George Illawarra for offloads (135) in the first half of the year in a sign the Bulldogs are looking for a more second-phase play in 2017. The news of Hopoate's availability is a welcome one for the visitors with the 25-year-old averaging 191 metres in five appearances so far this season.
The history: Played 88; Sharks 32; Bulldogs 54; Drawn 2. Cronulla have won the last two clashes between the sides – both by two points – however the Bulldogs have won eight of the last 11 fixtures against the premiers including six of their last seven games played in the Shire.
It has been a bumpy road for the Sharks at Southern Cross Group Stadium with the side losing their only three games this season at home. The clash will be the first time in six years the Bulldogs have played at the venue with both clubs only meeting each other once a season in the past five years.
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins; Assistant referee: Gavin Badger; Touch judges: Dave Ryan and Rohan Best; Review Officials: Luke Patten and Jared Maxwell.
Televised: Fox League – Live from 7:30pm.
NRL.com predicts: Based on recent history this clash should go down to the wire. With both sides depleted due to Origin duty and the Sharks' poor home ground record to begin the year, the Bulldogs should feel confident. However the addition of Gallen and Holmes for the clash is huge for Cronulla and should help carry the premiers over the line, but only by a small margin. Sharks by four.