Sharks v Wests Tigers preview

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Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v Wests Tigers Saturday 5:30pm at Bankwest Stadium

Tigers "Grant"-ed new lease on life as Sharks lose star centre at the 11th hour

The Sharks and Wests Tigers will take the field at Bankwest stadium on Saturday both looking very different to when they last took the field over two months ago before the competition went on hold due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

While the Tigers changes may be larger in number than their opponents, they are also for much more orthodox reasons. Off-season recruit Adam Doueihi gets first taste of his preferred position of fullback, with usual guaranteed starter Corey Thompson being sensationally dropped altogether from the Tigers side named on Tuesday. Captain Moses Mbye returns in the centres after missing the first two rounds through injury, while Harry Grant will get his first start at hooker in first grade after completing a swap deal with new Storm centre Paul Momirovski just before the hiatus. Thomas Mikaele moves to the starting side, pushing Alex Twal to lock and Elijah Taylor out of the side. Billy Walters moves back to the bench to accommodate Grant, while Josh Reynolds, Zane Musgrove and Michael Chee-Kam have been named in the reserves with Oliver Clark, Chris Lawrence and debutant Alex Seyfarth coming into the side.

Sharks fans will be hoping for the game on Saturday to come quickly to take their minds off the extraordinary news that centre Bronson Xerri is likely to serve a four-year ban from professional sport due to a drug test in November last year returning positive for banned substances. The news means that the four centres the Sharks had in their roster at the start of the year have now become two, with Josh Morris linking up with brother Brett at the Roosters. Team wise it means that Will Kennedy will keep his spot at fullback with Josh Dugan moving to the centres and Sione Katoa coming into the side on the wing. Briton Nikora, who enjoyed a breakout season in 2019, returns from injury to partner captain Wade Graham in the second row, pushing Scott Sorensen back to the bench and Newtown grand final hero Billy Magoulias out of the 17. 

This shapes as one of the more intriguing matches of the round with extreme question marks hanging over both the Sharks and Tigers after both coming off losses in Round 2. The Tigers didn't have trouble finding the line in their opening fixtures however it was their defence that was the worrying sign, conceding 42 points against the Knights. They come up against a Sharks side which is arguably stronger on paper than the 17 that pushed competition heavyweights Melbourne all the way before succumbing to a late Cameron Smith penalty goal in March. The Tigers appear to be extremely outmatched in experience up front, with their forward pack boasting just 224 top grade combined matches compared to the Sharks 706. Wade Graham alone has played more NRL games than the entire Tigers starting forwards put together. The Tigers do however have one of the most experienced halves on their side in Benji Marshall, who was the best on field in Round 1 before dropping off somewhat in Round 2. You would think how well he combines with returning halfback Luke Brooks will be a big factor in whether the Tigers can get the 2 points or not. 

Last meeting: Round 25 2019 - Wests Tigers 8 Sharks 25

You couldn't get a more picturesque scene in Rugby League if you tried, a Leichhardt Oval hill packed to the brim to watch the Tigers take on the Sharks in what was effectively an elimination final, with the winner to make the top 8 and the loser left looking to next year. It just wasn't the Tigers' day, they were blown off the park by a more experienced Sharks side in what would be club legend Paul Gallen's final regular season appearance.

Who to watch: I've already written that young hooker Harry Grant would be one for the punters to look out for this year, except that was a round one match between the Storm and Manly and he ended up being cut from the final Melbourne 17 prior to kick-off. There are long odds of that happening again come Saturday, with the youngster named to start in the number 9 jumper for the Tigers. We already got a taste of him in action is some pre-season trial matches and it's fair to say he more than lived up to the hype. It's now up to Grant to replicate that form on the biggest stage, and not just Tigers fans but Rugby League fans will be keenly watching every move of the man dubbed the long-term replacement to Cameron Smith at both the Storm and Maroons.

For the Sharks, Shaun Johnson will be looking to find the form we all know he is capable of after a mixed start to his new life in the shire in 2019. At his best he can single-handedly terrorise opposition defences with his scintillating footwork and running game, but at his worst he is guilty of drifting in and out of games and not taking enough control. That responsibility should mainly be on halves partner Chad Townsend, so for Shaun's sake hopefully he can be at his exciting best on Saturday. 

The favourite: The Sharks come into this game as slight favourites to pick up their first win of the season with the bookies.

My tip: This is up there with the hardest games of the round to pick thanks largely to the unknown of how much impact Harry Grant will have on the Tigers already strong attack. If he has a blinder, I wouldn't be shocked to see the Tigers get up, however the Sharks have too much experience all over the park and particularly in their forwards for me to tip against them. Sharks by 10.

1. Will Kennedy 2. Sione Katoa 3. Josh Dugan 4. Jesse Ramien 5. Ronaldo Mulitalo 6. Shaun Johnson 7. Chad Townsend 16. Toby Rudolf 9. Blayke Brailey 10. Aaron Woods 11. Briton Nikora 12. Wade Graham 13. Jack Williams 15. Braden Hamlin-Uele 17. Scott Sorensen 18. Billy Magoulias 19. Matt Moylan

1. Adam Doueihi 2. David Nofoaluma 3. Joseph Leilua 4. Moses Mbye 5. Robert Jennings 6. Benji Marshall 7. Luke Brooks 8. Josh Aloiai 9. Harry Grant 10. Thomas Mikaele 11. Luke Garner 12. Luciano Leilua 13. Alex Twal 14. Oliver Clark 15. Billy Walters 16. Chris Lawrence 17. Alex Seyfarth

Referees: Adam Gee; Sideline Officials: Kasey Badger, Jon Stone; Video Referees: Jared Maxwell, Ben Lowe;

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