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While many good critics have anticipated a drastic rise in fortune for the Tigers this season, Cronulla have sneaked through the pre-season with barely a hint of publicity. Both clubs have stocked up on new players to complement those already on their roster and both clubs experienced a surge in good form towards the latter half of 2003. However, despite the parallels between both clubs, all the weight of expectation sits heavily across gold, black and white shoulders in 2004.
Why, then, have the bookmakers declared Cronulla favourites for this weekend?s double header clash? Most probably it?s because the bookies have been able to look through the hype and hoo-hah and discovered which team appears more capable on paper. Where Cronulla threw their recruitment dollars at rising talents and superstars of the game, the Tigers sifted through the dregs of the player market and emerged with a number of reasonable, if risky, purchases. If Tim Sheens can solve each of their new recruits? individual problems, the Tigers will be onto a very good thing. If not, it may be a long year for the faithful in Balmain and Campbelltown.
For this game, the Tigers have taken a more defensive approach whereas Cronulla have opted for an attacking line up. Cronulla?s backline has speed to burn in its wingers Rieck and Merritt, while David Peachey has been given a license to entertain according to coach Stuart Raper. The Tigers back three are less inspiring, although Brett Hodgson is capable of turning a game on his day.
The centres are a more even affair. John Wilson and Shane Elford are both talented players, although Elford has struggled to maintain a position in a Panthers team that was often struggling at the bottom end of the table in recent seasons. Wilson, however, is a solid prospect and may trouble his slower opponent, international Phil Bailey. Bailey, however, should not be underestimated. He has, after all, represented his nation in the centres and while he is no noted speedster, he still has the strength to trouble the Tigers all afternoon. Ryan McGoldrick is a wildcard thrown into the mix; possessing excellent speed and a good deal of strength, he may be a key component in Cronulla?s chances at victory.
The halves are heavily tipped in the favour of Cronulla, if only thanks to one man, Brett Kimmorley. Noddy is a class act and all indications from the trials claim that he has lost none of his ability under coach Raper. Greg Bird has potential, granted he learns to pass the ball, but with Noddy running the show he can usually just come along for the ride. The Tigers will have to be especially careful close to the line, as Kimmorley is equally capable of slipping a tidy grubber into the in-goal or simply running at a gap to slide through for a try. The Tigers? Daniel Fitzhenry and Scott Prince are both developing talents, but neither is established as a top class half yet.
The clash of the forward packs is an interesting one. The Tigers have opted for a number of tireless defenders, such as Nick Graham and Scott Sattler. Cronulla, on the other hand, have chosen forwards who excel at making metres and offloading in traffic. Both packs are a stark contrast to the other and probably one area where Wests may have the edge. However, if Cronulla?s new look back-row of Gallen and Lomu can help take the pressure off Stevens, Nutley and Beattie, the Sharks are more than capable of trampling over the Mark O?Neill, Sattler and Darren Senter.
It should be an entertaining opener to this Saturday?s double header, but all indications tend to suggest that the bookmakers are correct. Cronulla should account for the Tigers with relative ease, although don?t be surprised if both clubs push for a top eight berth later in the year.