The local derby has arrived early in 2021, with the Sharks and Dragons to meet in the season-opener at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium on Sunday.
Again the Monty Porter Memorial trophy will be on the line when the two traditional rivals face off, with incoming St George coach Anthony Griffin looking to get his team off to a winning start, against John Morris and a Sharks side determined to turn around their poor record in round one matches.
While the Sharks form against the Dragons is strong, with three wins from the past four encounters, the Cronulla side has lost its last seven opening round games and 10 of the past 11, the most recent game one victory coming over the Titans in 2013.
Giving Morris and his team confidence of bucking the trend has been their outstanding off-season, with the coach excited about round one and putting what has been achieved through a long and challenging pre-season into practice.
“They've put in a lot of hard work, and I can't be happier with what they've put in, but now is the litmus test, now we've got to go and execute and put all that hard training into play,” Morris said. "Local derby, what better way to kick off the season for both clubs and I'm looking forward to the challenge."
Also giving the Sharks a boost has been the summer enjoyed by Matt Moylan, with this week’s five eighth seemingly having put his injury frustrations behind him with an uninterrupted pre-season, one that has him arguably as fit as he has been in a number of years.
In the absence of the injured Shaun Johnson, Moylan joins Chad Townsend in the halves, with Blayke Brailey and Will Kennedy making up the Sharks spine.
Hooker Brailey is sure to be excited to get his year underway after watching the opening games of the 2021 season where running and creative hookers have had a huge influence on the outcome of matches.
As for Kennedy, the Bathurst product was another to impress during the off-season and has won the battle against the versatile Connor Tracey for the number one jersey.
On the Sharks bench, former Bulldog Aiden Tolman, with 275 games and 13 years of NRL experience, is a welcome addition, Tracey assumes the utility role, Billy Magoulias and Jack Williams make up the interchange, with the starting side having a similar look and feel to the team which played throughout the 2020 season.
The head to head statistics between the clubs shows it is keenly contest rivalry with just one win separating the two in this local derby fixture. In the 46 matches played since the St George merger with Illawarra, the Dragons have won 23, the Sharks 22, with one match drawn.
As the home team, the Dragons have won 14 of 22 matches, including nine of the past 12, with their past five home victories over Cronulla by 13 points or more.
At Kogarah, Dragons have won seven of 11, however, the Sharks have taken the honours in the last two encounters, both by four points, their most recent being a 28-24 win in Round 11 last season.
St George Illawarra come into 2021 having finished 12th last year in failing to make the finals for the second straight season. The Dragons have only played in two of the past nine finals series (2015, 2018), while the Sharks will be intent on qualifying for the Top 8 for a seventh successive season after an eighth-place finish in 2020.
For the season-opener the Sharks also celebrate the 50th game in Cronulla colours for Aaron Woods, with the 19-man squad seeing Andrew Fifita and Braydon Trindall drop out from the originally-named 21, meaning Teig Wilton and Mawene Hiroti have been retained on the extended reserves bench.
The Sharks v Dragons clash kicks off at 6.15pm on Sunday evening at PointsBet in a match which completes round one of the NRL season.
The curtain-raiser between the Newtown Jets, the Sharks partner club in the NSW Cup, and the St George Illawarra Dragons gets underway at 3.45pm.
See the two 19-man squads listed below;
Fullback for Dragons is number 1 Matthew DuftyFullback for Sharks is number 1 William Kennedy
Winger for Dragons is number 2 Cody RamseyWinger for Sharks is number 2 Sione Katoa
Centre for Dragons is number 3 Jack BirdCentre for Sharks is number 3 Josh Dugan
Centre for Dragons is number 4 Zac LomaxCentre for Sharks is number 4 Jesse Ramien
Winger for Dragons is number 5 Mikaele RavalawaWinger for Sharks is number 5 Ronaldo Mulitalo
Five-Eighth for Dragons is number 6 Adam CluneFive-Eighth for Sharks is number 6 Matt Moylan
Halfback for Dragons is number 7 Ben HuntHalfback for Sharks is number 7 Chad Townsend
Prop for Dragons is number 8 Blake LawrieProp for Sharks is number 8 Braden Hamlin-Uele
Hooker for Dragons is number 9 Andrew McCulloughHooker for Sharks is number 9 Blayke Brailey
Prop for Dragons is number 10 Paul VaughanProp for Sharks is number 10 Aaron Woods
2nd Row for Dragons is number 11 Josh Kerr2nd Row for Sharks is number 11 Briton Nikora
2nd Row for Dragons is number 12 Tariq Sims2nd Row for Sharks is number 12 Wade Graham
Lock for Dragons is number 13 Tyrell FuimaonoLock for Sharks is number 13 Toby Rudolf
Interchange for Dragons is number 14 Poasa FaamausiliInterchange for Sharks is number 14 Connor Tracey
Interchange for Dragons is number 15 Trent MerrinInterchange for Sharks is number 15 Aiden Tolman
Interchange for Dragons is number 16 Daniel AlvaroInterchange for Sharks is number 16 Jack Williams
Interchange for Dragons is number 17 Brayden WiliameInterchange for Sharks is number 17 Billy Magoulias
- Referee: Peter Gough
- Touch Judge: Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski
- Touch Judge: Kasey Badger
- Senior Review Official: Steve Chiddy