Round 12: Sharks v Bulldogs preview - 2017 Round 12
Dogs primed to strike against depleted premiers.
Unlike last year where these two sides played out a tense clash at mostly full strength which finished with a final-minute Cronulla win, this year's contest between the Sharks and Bulldogs has the potential to be a fizzer with both teams suffering greatly at the hands of the New South Wales Origin selection panel. Eight of the 26 players who would normally be earmarked to start in this one are currently in camp as teammates ahead of next Wednesday's series opener and will be watching from the sidelines.
The good news for the premiers is that unlike the previous decade, Paul Gallen will pull on their blue shirt instead of his state one. This should provide a critical edge the Bulldogs may well lack with the omission of Klemmer and Jackson from their pack.
On the flipside, Cronulla's Andrew Fifita has been in fantastic form and leaves a giant hole in their pack that is difficult to fill.
This one will largely be about the impact of the lesser-knowns, with future Bulldog Fa'amanu Brown named in the halves for the Sharks and rookie winger Marcelo Montoya recalled for the blue-and-whites, for example. If these fringe players can put in a good shift, then not only could it earn their side a crucial Origin-period victory, but also bolster their own chances of a permanent promotion and their clubs' depth.
Canterbury dominated much of last year's clash before a spirited Cronulla comeback allowed them to continue on their huge run of undefeated matches. This Saturday the Bulldogs become the first team to play the Sharks on 100 occasions, with the Bulldogs ahead on 57 wins from the 99 matches played to date. 37 of these have been held in the Shire with 17 wins going to the Sharks compared to 19 for Canterbury and one drawn - however this will be only the third time since 2005 the pair have met here after countless matches held at ANZ Stadium, Belmore and even Gosford.
Who to watch: Plenty of weight falls onto Chad Townsend's shoulders this Saturday, with the crafty half having the responsibility of guiding his side around Shark Park without the help of Maloney. While Brown will deputise for Maloney, it's "Jimmy" who normally calls the shots so this shift in responsibility will be a real test for the Shire boys. With Wade Graham also absent through Origin duty, it'll be a tough night at the office if Townsend doesn't step up.
After spending a few seasons drifting in and out of Des Hasler's interchange bench, Adam Elliott appears to have cemented his place in the Bulldogs' first grade squad. This week he'll take on added responsibility in Josh Jackson's usual second-row position. Arguably Canterbury's form player this season, his work on the edges along with that of Greg Eastwood will go a long way to deciding the result in this one.
The favourite: Despite the omission of several key stars, Cronulla's form and standing on the table have them better backed in this contest.
My tip: Josh Jackson and Andrew Fifita both are huge losses to their sides but the key here is the Sharks losing James Maloney in the halves. The Bulldogs have had a few weeks of stability in this area and I think that will get them home against a valiant showing from the premiers. Bulldogs by 2.