Round 11: Sharks v Bulldogs preview
Resurgent Sharks eye off fifth consecutive win against battling Bulldogs
After a sluggish start to the year had many predicting the Sharks were headed for a major overhaul of their roster, the 2016 premiers have shown remarkable resilience to produce four consecutive wins despite a mounting injury toll.
Unable to draw upon the services of Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis, Wade Graham, Jayson Bukuya and Josh Dugan - a combined total of approximately 1,300 first grade and representative games in experience - the injection of a number of emerging talents has provided an air of youthful exuberance that has spread throughout the entire playing ranks.
Left largely unaddressed in recent years due to a fortunate run with injury and a highly experienced playing group, the decision to develop the likes of Kurt Dillon, Jack Williams, Scott Sorenson and Braden Uele has enhanced the side's overall depth and laid out a visible progression for the imminent retirements of the club's triple centurions.
Returning to Cronulla for only their third daytime match at home in twelve months, the eighth-placed outfit will be eager to extend their lead over the likes of Brisbane and Newcastle in order to solidify their hopes of featuring in finals football for the fourth straight season for just the second time in club's history.
Boosted by the returns of Gallen and Bukuya, along with the potential late inclusions of Lewis and Dugan, coach Shane Flanagan will be hopeful of recent history continuing having claimed victory in the past three fixtures, however in a potentially ominous sign, prior to 2015 the Sharks managed just 3 wins from 17 clashes dating back to 2002 against Canterbury.
Putting slight distance between themselves and 16th position after a hard-fought win over Parramatta last Friday, the Bulldogs will be hoping the rare opportunity of playing daytime football proves prosperous as rookie coach Dean Pay continues to mull over an uncertain roster.
With a variety of highly-publicised salary cap issues putting the futures of a number of senior players into question, more immediate concerns lie in the side's struggle to score tries throughout matches. Managing just 23 four-pointers in ten matches so far this season, the inability to trouble opponents on the scoreboard is likely to be especially telling on Sunday given Cronulla have posted twice as many tries over the past month.
With Josh Morris being the only current Canterbury player to register a win at the Woolooware venue while representing the Blue and Whites, it seems highly likely that despite the temporary respite of last week, things are set to get much worse before the tide begins to turn for the Belmore outfit.
While an underlying sense of pessimism has affected the side for much of the year, 2018 has seen a number of younger players show plenty of promise with Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Jeremy Marshall-King and Rhyse Martin making the best of a difficult situation.
With Clay Priest taking the place of Danny Fualalo on the bench in the only change for the squad that outlasted the Eels 20-12, the fixture will hold additional significance for William Hopoate as he brings up his 50th game for the club - the first time he has achieved the feat throughout his well-travelled career.
Sharks key player:
Declared as the best hooker in the league four years ago, a well-travelled period across both hemispheres has seen James Segeyaro forced to adapt his game, but with increasing involvement he appears to be returning to his dynamic best based on recent efforts.
Rated as a potential successor to Cameron Smith during the height of his career in 2014, the Papua New Guinean representative has been unable to usurp Jayden Brailey as the Sharks starting hooker, however just as he made his name at North Queensland as a game-breaking impact player, the 28-year-old has shown himself to be a leading figure in the Sharks newfound confidence.
Possessing a deadly turn of pace and dogged determination to follow the ball, the injection of Segeyaro has been pivotal in developing the structures that allowed Cronulla to claim their maiden title, while ensuring that success can continue into the future.
Bulldogs key player:
Known exclusively as a specialist outside back prior to this season, Kerrod Holland has switched his style up to great effect under Dean Pay's tutelage to become a highly valued utility for the Bulldogs.
Often introduced into matches in the final quarter to provide a fresh set of legs out of dummy half, the 23-year-old is not completely devoid of experience as a playmaker having plied his trade as a halfback and fullback in the local Newcastle and Hunter local leagues, but in making the step up to the premier global rugby league competition, Holland has shown plenty of talent when called upon by his coach.
Adept as a goal-kicker as highlighted by his unforgettable last-gasp conversion on debut, the former Knights reserve grader may not play many minutes on Sunday afternoon, but as he has shown in recent weeks, his true value to the Bulldogs lies in the impact he makes rather than how long he plays for.
The favourite: Coming into Sunday's fixture with a sense of confidence severely lacking in the latter part of last season, the Sharks are expected to extend their recent run of wins to five on the trot.
My tip: While both sides have had limited exposure in the sun throughout 2018, the Sharks ability and willingness to move the ball around should see them run out with a convincing win at home. Sharks by 20.