The form guide shows it as a desperate battle of two teams that are yet to register a win in the first six rounds, but today’s clash between the Titans and Sharks at Remondis Stadium has all the ingredients of a tough, physical battle.
And at the forefront will be two of rugby league’s great competitors – good mates and NSW Blues teammates Greg Bird and Paul Gallen.
Bird, in his first NRL game of 2015, added a real presence and lifted those around him against the Knights last Sunday and will give himself the role of nullifying Gallen’s incredible go-forward and second-phase creation.
Only Penrith (17) have produced more offloads per game in the first three rounds than the Sharks (14), with Gallen providing 11 of them. He is also the NRL’s top metre-gainer early in the season so it’s no secret the Titans have to curb his influence.
The Sharks were humbled 36-18 by Melbourne last weekend but before then were extremely competitive against Brisbane (lost 10-2) and Canberra (lost 24-12) and are looking for their first win at home in nine games. They will be fired up.
The much-criticised Ben Barba is sidelined due to suspension but Wade Graham’s move to five-eighth provides a real danger to the Titans as he is a strong, direct runner who is dangerous close to the line and can ball-play.
Aidan Sezer will be a key for the Tigers. With Daniel Mortimer, who normally plays on the right side, injured and halfback Kane Elgey debuting, Sezer has added responsibility to control the attack and switch sides. Both are left-footed kickers with good long kicking games, which gives the team an extra dimension.
The Sharks have a tough experienced pack that incudes internationals in skipper Gallen, Anthony Tupou, Luke Lewis, Andrew Fifita (all Australia) and Chris Heighington (England) plus NSW State of Origin rep Michael Ennis. Few teams can boast that representative advantage in their pack and then in their backline Gerard Beale (New Zealand) and Michael Gordon (NSW) have played big time rep footy.
The message from coach Neil Henry to his side has been simple: complete your sets more consistently, don’t over-play when the game comes down to the wire, restrict the Sharks’ opportunities to offload and get some second phase and have some patience.
Their form is better than the 0-3 record suggests: a field-goal loss to the Tigers with four seconds remaining; two tries disallowed in the first 10 minutes and a chance to be behind 8-6 after 43 minutes was squandered against Penrith before a fall-out to 40-0, and a 20-18 last-gasp loss to the Knights. Before this weekend Knights were three-from-three and the Panthers and Tigers two-from-three.
The Titans aren’t far away on form, just not on the competition ladder.
TITANS: Hoffman, Don, Roberts, Zillman, Mead, Sezer, Elgey, Douglas, Falloon, Myles, James, Taylor, Bird. Interchange: Pettybourne, White, Simpkins, Srama, Paasi (one to be omitted).
SHARKS: Gordon, Feki, Beale, Leutele, Holmes, Graham, Robson, A. Fifita, Ennis, Heighington, Bukuya, Tupou, Gallen (capt). Interchange: Lewis, Prior, Bird, D. Fifita, Arona (one to be omitted).
REFEREES: Gerard Sutton, Matt Noyen. Video refs: Shane Hayne, Henry Perenara.
KICK-OFF: 5.30pm (NSW) / 4.30pm Qld.
CLASHES SINCE 2007: 11 – Sharks 6 wins, Titans 5.
LAST 10 GAMES: Titans – won 3, lost 7. Sharks – won 4, lost 6.
AT REMONDIS: Played 7 – Sharks 5, Titans 2.
POINTS FOR/AGAINST IN 2015 – Sharks 40/70; Titans 36/79.
TRIES FOR/AGAINST – Sharks 6/12; Titans – 6/14.
COMPLETIONS – Sharks 72%, Titans 64%.