Steven Ross, North Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Cowboys v Sharks
Well, aren’t the North Queensland folk just licking their chops right about now? Five wins from their past six games – including three of four on the road – and they show no signs of slowing down. It’s safe to say those away game demons have well and truly been exorcised, and it couldn’t have come at a better time of year.
After playing five of their past seven games in Sydney the rampaging Cowboys, who have broken into the official Power Rankings top four for the first time this year, will finish with a two game home stand against the best and worst the NRL has to offer. Fresh off a 64-6 drubbing, the North Queensland faithful will be expecting much the same as they look to build on a +203 points differential from the 10 games at 1300SMILES Stadium so far this year.
Bookies are offering the shortest odds of any game all season and unfortunately for the visitors it is not hard to see why. After two more of Cronulla’s men ended their seasons against the Raiders on Sunday, serious questions were asked as to whether they could even field a team this week after the bans handed down by ASADA last week stripped their squad further.
Five-eighth Fa’amanu Brown went down with a medial ligament injury and centre Johnathan Wright put Jarrod Croker on his head, which resulted in a three-week ban handed down Tuesday.
What more can be said about the Cowboys? They are healthy and in-form, and their talent pool resembles something like the Laurentian Abyss at this point. It’s crazy to think that the absence of someone like Matthew Wright can be filled so easily in prodigy Kyle Feldt, who managed two tries in an almost-flawless game last week.
Paul Green will send the same side into battle, with the only change being a positional switch which moves Jason Taumalolo into the no. 13 jersey for the first time this year, and Gavin Cooper to the second row.
For the visitors, Blake Ayshford moves to the centres, Daniel Holdsworth returns at five-eighth, and Tinirau Arona returns the second row.
Watch Out Cowboys: Probably the scariest prospect North Queensland face on Monday night is the man that they let slip, exciting wing prospect Valentine Holmes. Cronulla moved faster than North Queensland in 2012, snapping up the 19-year-old Townsville junior, who has played for the Sharks NYC team the past two years before getting his big break in Round 21 against Parramatta. That said, North Queensland seem to be doing just fine in the three-quarter line despite the imminent departure of young flyer Curtis Rona, who will join the Bulldogs next season.
The one statistical category where Cronulla still lead the league is offloads, and they are now streets ahead of the rest at 13.1 per game; more than a whole unit ahead of Gold Coast. But that did not trouble the Cowboys last time out, keeping the Sharks to just 10 in their hoodoo-halting 36-18 win in Sydney.
Although the odds are stacked against them, there is a lot Cronulla can gain from this experience. “The younger boys that came in, it’s their dream to play NRL,” interim coach James Shepherd said of debutants Scott Sorenson and Sione Masima after last week’s loss. So while they may not have the attributes and timing of a Paul Gallen or Anthony Tupou, expect nothing but enthusiasm from the NRL rookies as they take the task head-on.
Watch Out Sharks: Cronulla fans, we advise caution. No one likes to dish out home turf hidings quite like the boys from up north, and with an average winning margin of over 20 points this season, things have the potential to get out of hand quickly. The Cowboys will see this as a much-needed percentage-booster in the faintest hope of sneaking a top four berth if either the Roosters or Panthers happen to drop their remaining two games.
You can’t open a newspaper these days without seeing the names Johnathan Thurston or Jason Taumalolo, but there’s a certain prime mover who always seems to go under the radar regardless of his 200+ run-metre performances. Whatever the reason, Matt Scott only ever gets passing mentions. The man has managed nine 150-metre efforts from his 16 games this season, and of the three games in excess of 225 metres, two have come in the past three weeks. It’s not a stretch to expect another such performance against a much younger and less experienced Sharks pack minus big names Paul Gallen, Anthony Tupou, Andrew Fifita, Bryce Gibbs, Luke Lewis, and Wade Graham.
Plays To Watch: The Raiders tore Cronulla’s right edge to shreds in the second half last Sunday and with quality names like Thurston, Gavin Cooper, Kane Linnett and Antonio Winterstein on duty over there, we can only wish Cronulla good luck in their attempts to stem the flow of points.
Where It Will Be Won: The clock. The longer Cronulla can stay in the contest, the more nerves should creep into North Queensland’s game. After all, who wants to be known as the team that lost the unlosable game? Strange things can happen in rugby league, so if Cronulla were to defy logic and make a game of it, the pressure applied by the clock could force some uncharacteristic football from the home side.
However, if the Cowboys score a couple of early tries, you can probably shut the gate. As the Cowboys rank second in the NRL (behind the Roosters) for points in the first 20 minutes, expect the latter.
The History: Played 34; Sharks 21, Cowboys 13. Historically North Queensland have struggled but as is the case in many Cowboys head-to-heads, the damage was done around the turn of the century when the club was in its infancy. The Cowboys failed to register a single win against Cronulla for six years (1997-2003), but over the past 10 games hold a 7-3 winning record.
Match Officials: Referee – Ashley Klein; Assistant Referee – Chris Sutton; Sideline Officials – Brett Suttor & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Jared Maxwell & Steve Folkes.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live, 7.00pm.
The Way We See It: The equation is so simple for North Queensland that it even rhymes: Win and they’re in (to the finals). The middle third will be an all-you-can-eat buffet for the forwards, who last week outmuscled a Souths pack that is widely considered the game’s best. We expect big gains from forwards Matt Scott, Jason Taumalolo and Ashton Sims (who is still starting for James Tamou), and an Antonio Winterstein or Kyle Feldt hat-trick is entirely possible. With the Sharks’ lack of enterprise in attack and fringe defence that resembles more Swiss cheese than brick wall, this game is only going one way. Cowboys by 40.