Round 21: Sharks v Dragons preview
Dragons hoping local derby will reignite fading season
With last week's win over South Sydney, Cronulla look almost guaranteed a spot inside the top four. Why? Well, one simple look at the Sharks' run home for the rest of the year explains it. After all, this week's game against the Dragons, if you are going by ladder positions, is supposed to be one of their toughest.
The Sharks face the Tigers, Sea Eagles, Bulldogs and Knights in their remaining games before the finals and would be favourites to win all four. Although, Manly will be a tough prospect if still in the hunt for a finals spot while Canterbury-Bankstown is rejuvenated under Mick Potter. But for the time being, another win this week will further cement the Sharks' spot inside the top four.
Cronulla took home a crucial two points last Saturday, scoring a tense 21-20 win over South Sydney in extra time. It continued a strong record at home for the Sharks, who have won seven of eight games in Cronulla this season, giving Craig Fitzgibbon's men all the more reason to shoot for second spot on the ladder. North Queensland though sit two points clear thanks to that debacle against the Tigers and also have a superior points-differential, meaning Cronulla cannot afford to drop winnable games like this.
In team news, fullback Wil Kennedy is sidelined for up to six weeks after undergoing ankle surgery, but speedster Lachlan Miller is not the replacement as expected. Rather, young gun Kade Dykes has been rewarded with his NRL debut after impressing for the Sharks in NSW Cup this year.
In other team, Royce Hunt (shoulder) is also out and replaced by Braden Hamlin-Uele in the starting team with Braydon Trindall the new name on the bench.
As for the Dragons, a 34-8 loss to the Cowboys last week has all but put an end to their finals hopes.
Sure, Anthony Griffin's men are only two points behind the eighth-placed Roosters but they also have a poor for-and-against, meaning it should effectively be four points. Ben Hunt could only carry this team so far and now it looks like even a Dally M-contending season from their halfback won't be enough.
Last week's defeat was the Dragons' 10th of the season and fifth by more than 20 points, while it was also the seventh time the opposition's tally had skipped over 30. Put simply, when the Dragons lose, they have a habit for doing so in spectacularly bad fashion.
The Dragons' September hopes may be slipping away but Griffin still does not see reason to panic, naming the same 17 that fell to the Cowboys last week. That is right - unfortunately for Dragons fans, it will be another week of Jack Bird playing out of position in the centres but Cody Ramsey should be back in Round 22 from a knee injury.
Who to watch: All eyes will be on third-generation Shark Kade Dykes as he makes his NRL debut and don't be surprised if the 20-year-old celebrates the milestone with a try. It would be a well-deserved reward for Dykes, who knocked back approaches from the Dolphins and Bulldogs to stick solid with the Sharks. That is despite seemingly being behind both Kennedy and Miller in the pecking order for the fullback jumper. It would have been tempting to jump ship and learn from either Wayne Bennett or Phil Gould - two of the best minds in the game. But Dykes backed himself and his form in NSW Cup was just too hard to ignore, averaging 130 run metres to go with eight tries, nine try assists, 15 linebreaks 68 tackle busts.
As for the Dragons, Jack Bird faces quite the challenge after struggling last week against the Cowboys. Jeremiah Nanai showed up Bird in defence and it won't be much easier for the utility this week. Bird is set to come up against the explosive Jesse Ramien this week, who will prove just as hard to take down in defence. It is not as if the Dragons can shift Bird over to the other edge either because Siosifa Talakai would be waiting. The simple solution would be to play actual centre in the centres but Griffin looks determined to see out this Bird experiment, even if it backfires again. If it does, at least Bird is spared some blame.
My tip: A simple tip for this game. If the Dragons score first, they will win. If they concede first, they will lose. That is how it has gone all season for the Red V. St George Illawarra has a habit of turning up when you least expect it and the local derby could be just that occasion. But last week's loss to North Queensland suggested the Dragons may have just checked out for 2022. Sharks by 20.