Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Sharks v Cowboys
Is there anything better than Sunday afternoon footy in the Shire sunshine between two of the form teams of the NRL?
After a slow start to the season following the ongoing sagas of the ASADA investigation, the Sharks have galvanised themselves and gradually moved their way up the NRL ladder over the past few months – a feat aided in recent weeks by the return of a number of previously injured stars.
With the exception of a last-minute loss to Newcastle in Round 22, they are warming up for the finals nicely with five wins from their past six and their top-eight berth is now assured with just two weeks of the regular season remaining. However, their brutal dismantling of competition leaders the Sydney Roosters on Monday night was a clear statement of intent and a message to the four sides above them on the NRL ladder that perhaps 2013 isn’t a four-horse race after all.
Certainly with Todd Carney in the form of his life, Michael Gordon back to full fitness and a forward pack among the most formidable in the Telstra Premiership, they will take plenty of beating. All they need is the self-belief.
The big question for the Sharks this week is whether they can lift themselves again following such a huge physical and mental effort against the Roosters. That’s often the challenge after playing the competition benchmark and if they are off their game there is no better side in the NRL to run them ragged than North Queensland.
What for so long was set to go down as a forgettable season for the Cowboys has suddenly sparked to life with four wins in a row since coach Neil Henry was informed he wouldn’t be with the club in 2014.
While Henry must be wondering where this form has been all year, he would also be revelling in the possibility that his side could sneak into the finals. And should that happen, rest assured the teams above them would be looking over their shoulder knowing just how dangerous they can be.
Not surprisingly, it is Johnathan Thurston that has been leading the charge with his long-term partner in crime Matt Bowen starting to show some of the form of old following a season plagued by injury.
This is a tough assignment for North Queensland but with a home game against Wests Tigers to follow in Round 26, there can be no excuses for not putting it all on the line in this one.
Cronulla have named the same side that downed the Roosters last week, with centre Ben Pomeroy free to take his place after beating his dangerous throw charge at the judiciary on Wednesday night.
Rookie hooker Jayden Hodges has been named to make his debut for North Queensland in place of Ray Thompson who is recovering from surgery on his broken jaw. Hodges will come off the bench with Rory Kostjasyn starting in the No.9.
The Cowboys have won just three daytime matches over the past four seasons but are also poised for their first ever undefeated month of August.
Watch Out Sharks: It’s no surprise that Johnathan Thurston has been the main man behind North Queensland’s run of four consecutive wins. In those four games he has made three line-breaks, produced nine try assists and 11 tackle-breaks with his infamous show-and-go at its dazzling best. He has also been gradually improving his running game. He ran for 57 metres in the win over Souths, 62 metres against Penrith a week later, 78 against the Gold Coast and 111 last week against Newcastle.
Watch Out Cowboys: North Queensland’s big men can be tough to stop but how will they fare against the NSW trio of Paul Gallen, Andrew Fifita and Luke Lewis? They were at the heart of Cronulla’s win over the Roosters last Monday with Gallen running for 216 metres, Fifita 156 and Lewis 145.
Plays To Watch: The Johnathan Thurston long ball to Antonio Winterstein on the left, which has caught plenty of sides with their pants down this season; the Thurston show-and-go; and Todd Carney’s face-ball to the second support player when attacking close to the try line.
Key Match-Up: Todd Carney v Johnathan Thurston. This was the match-up that produced such a thrilling State of Origin series in 2012 and Carney was desperately unlucky not to be there again for NSW this season. Nevertheless, his form of late has been brilliant and his kicking game drove the Roosters mad last Monday night including the early 40/20 and subsequent grubber that produced the opening try. Like Carney, Thurston was slow out of the blocks in 2013 but ever since his stunning performance in State of Origin II he has been near unstoppable.
Where It Will Be Won: This will be another epic clash in the forwards with NSW trio Paul Gallen, Luke Lewis and Andrew Fifita lining up against their Blues teammate James Tamou and Queensland hard man Matthew Scott. Both sides are at their best when playing direct so the battle of the packs will have a huge say on the final result.
The History: Played 31; Sharks 20, Cowboys 11. Cronulla enjoy a better win rate against North Queensland than against any other opponent at 65 per cent and have won 10 of 13 games against them at Remondis Stadium.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Luke Phillips; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Adam Reid; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Luke Patten.
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.
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Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 2pm.
The Way We See It: A game that promises plenty and much will depend on how the Sharks pull up after putting in a huge effort to down the Sydney Roosters last week. In many ways this is a test of their premiership credentials given that they are going to have to rise to the occasion again and again if they are to forge a path through the finals. North Queensland are right in this one but on home soil and given their performance to down the Roosters we can’t go past Cronulla in a tight one. Sharks by four points.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.