Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Cowboys v Sharks
Having finally put an end to the rot and kept their season from completely flat-lining with a last-start win over the Dragons, North Queensland face another season-defining clash this Sunday when they host Cronulla at the brilliantly named 1300Smiles Stadium.
Despite that much-needed win in Wollongong – which came as a timely reprieve for under-fire coach Neil Henry – the Cowboys are still a long way from being out of the woods just yet.
Boasting one of the best rosters in the competition, they have been by far the greatest disappointments of 2013 with just five wins from 14 games leaving them four points outside the top eight. That makes this clash against Cronulla crucial.
Of course, the trump card for the Cowboys will be the return of captain Johnathan Thurston from State of Origin duty. Having struggled through the opening State of Origin game with injury, he returned to his dazzling best in the win over the Dragons and as long as he is fit and firing a late charge isn’t beyond them.
But they will need to fix their spluttering attack in order to do so. Usually one of the most scintillating teams in the competition, North Queensland have scored just 240 points at 17 per game – ranking them 12th in the NRL (albeit ahead of this week’s opponents Cronulla).
While a fit-and-firing Thurston can fix that problem, the Cowboys also welcome back prop James Tamou following his suspension for drink driving. Again, his presence is crucial given that he and fellow prop Matt Scott have been standouts for the Cowboys this season.
But although they have the luxury of being back at home this week, North Queensland will have to drastically improve on their performance against the Dragons if they are to get over the top of Cronulla.
The Sharks have been one of the form sides of the past two months with five wins from six games seeing them surge into sixth spot after a slow start to the season. Much of their good work has come on the back of their star-studded forward pack which has made a habit of grinding opposition sides into submission.
The arrival of Luke Lewis in 2013 has certainly added plenty of starch in that regard while youngster Andrew Fifita has grown a new leg this season. Like his captain Paul Gallen, Fifita has made a habit out of notching huge metres of late and it is no surprise that he is one of three Sharks – along with Gallen and Lewis – returning from NSW Origin duty.
However, it could well be the Sharks’ defence that decides the outcome of this one. Neither side has set the world alight with the ball in hand in 2013 but at least Cronulla has defended the line stoutly with just 225 points conceded compared to North Queensland’s 277. If the Cowboys want to solve their attacking woes, this is what they must overcome to do so.
North Queensland have named all three Origin stars – Thurston, Scott and Brent Tate – but have added an extended bench with Scott Bolton, Gavin Cooper and Ethan Lowe included as cover. This could potentially be Cooper’s first game back since he injured his knee in Round 11.
Michael Gordon is back in the N0.1 jersey for Cronulla, pushing Beau Ryan out to the wing, while coach Shane Flanagan has also named an extended bench to cover his Origin stars. A foot injury to Gallen means he won’t take any part in this one with his replacement yet to be named. Either Ben Ross or Bryce Gibbs are the men most likely to come into the side in his place.
North Queensland winger Ash Graham will play his 200th NRL game and will become just the 38th player to have done so as well as scoring 100 career tries. Should the Cowboys win, his milestone will also coincide with the club’s 100th victory at their home ground. They have scored 809 tries in that time although they will be without the two men that have been there for the most of those wins – injured fullback Matt Bowen (70) and hooker Aaron Payne (66) who retired last year.
Sharks centre Ben Pomeroy needs just five metres to register 13,000 metres gained, making him the highest ever metre-gaining Cronulla centre and third-highest Shark of all time.
Watch Out Cowboys: It will be interesting to see how Andrew Fifita backs up after his second State of Origin game, but there is no doubt he is one player the Cowboys must keep a close eye on through the middle given the huge numbers he has notched in 2013. Fifita averaged 148 metres per game this season but has really risen to a new level lately having notched 251, 189, 204 and 210 metres in consecutive matches between Rounds 8 and 11.
Watch Out Sharks: The return from suspension of James Tamou means the Cowboys now have their two main big men back and ready to fire. Tamou and Matt Scott have been superb up front for North Queensland in 2013 – Tamou averaging 141 metres per game and Scott 142. They will take plenty of stopping through the middle this week.
Plays To Watch: The Johnathan Thurston cut-out ball to the left. As if we needed any reminding, Thurston threw two absolute beauties to set up tries for Darius Boyd in Wednesday night’s second State of Origin game – leaving NSW rookie Nathan Merritt stranded on both occasions. But the Blues should have been aware of what was coming because Thurston has done so on repeated occasions in the past. In fact, he caught the Melbourne Storm out twice as well earlier in the year with great long balls to Antonio Winterstein so Titans right winger Kevin Gordon will need to stay on his man when Thurston goes wandering.
Key Match-Up: Johnathan Thurston v Todd Carney. Two of the most exciting attacking players in the competition go head to head in what promises to be a scintillating battle. If any man can resurrect North Queensland’s season it is Thurston and his form over the past fortnight must at least have coach Neil Henry dreaming of a late charge to the finals. Likewise, Carney has performed solidly for the Sharks this season and his ability to break the line has been a cornerstone of the side’s attack.
Where It Will Be Won: In the halves. Neither side has set the world on fire with their attack in 2013 but if they can start to find improvement in their execution they will go a long way towards winning this game. That’s particularly relevant for the Cowboys who must find a way to crack the solid Cronulla defence if they are to win their second game on the trot.
The History: Played 30; Sharks 20, Cowboys 10. Cronulla boasts an excellent record in Townsville with 10 wins from 16 trips to 1300Smiles Stadium.
Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Peter Gough; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Neil Wharton.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week, including the Cowboys v Sharks clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live, 6.30pm.
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The Way We See It: The brilliant performances of Johnathan Thurston over the past few weeks has given us some encouragement when it comes to North Queensland’s finals chances and on home turf this week we can see the Cowboys causing a mild upset. Cronulla will be a touch battle-weary with Andrew Fifita and Luke Lewis backing up from Origin and captain Paul Gallen sidelined with injury while North Queensland’s Origin trio appear to have come through unscathed and will be buoyed by the Maroons’ Game two win. Cowboys by eight points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats