Steven Ross, North Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Sharks v Cowboys
The football gods have been throwing a tantrum all year and none have felt the brunt more than these two clubs. Although both have been put through the wringer in the past two months, if you don’t feel for the plight of the Shiremen, you just may have ice running through your veins.
First, they booked themselves an unwanted place in history with the NRL’s longest scoreless streak – 323 minutes between May 17 and June 27 – concluding in Round 16 against the Broncos. Second, they casually stage the single greatest comeback win in the club’s 47-year history with a win in Brisbane. And in no way were they done. Records tumbled again eight days later when they did it all over again, coming back from a 24-0 deficit against the home-ground Roosters. The emotional road trip finally caught up with them back on their home patch, blowing an 18-6 half-time lead to the Newcastle Knights last Sunday to lose 31-18.
Between on and off-field turbulence, one of the most draining months in NRL history should finally conclude for Cronulla when they face the equally desperate North Queensland Cowboys in a match that should be tighter than Paul Gallen’s training jersey after a weight session.
Unfortunately the captain himself looks to be out for an extended period with a bicep injury suffered against Newcastle, and will be replaced at lock by Anthony Tupou. Andrew Fifita starts in the front row, and Siosaia Vave, Tim Robinson and Tupou Sopoaga have all been added to an extended bench.
On the other side of the border, North Queensland say they are refreshed after last week’s bye and ready to rip into the last third of the season without unnecessary interruptions. Coming in as favourites Friday night, their well-documented road struggles may finally come to an end. But if the struggles continue, not finding a single road win in 2014 becomes a real possibility with their last three featuring the daunting tasks of Canterbury, Penrith and South Sydney.
In team news, Origin stars Johnathan Thurston and James Tamou return for North Queensland along with hooker Rory Kostjasyn and Ray Thompson who, after a three-week lay-off, gives up his starting halves spot to Robert Lui. Michael Morgan returns to fullback after a one-game run at No.7 while Matthew Wright shifts from fullback to his preferred position on the wing in place of Curtis Rona. Ethan Lowe is out with a two-game suspension, with Anthony Mitchell, Zac Santo and Ben Spina dropping back to their Intrust Super Cup teams.
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Watch Out Sharks: How poetic would it be for North Queensland to snap its road losing streak by taking out those who started it? Ten months ago the first week of finals were embroiled in controversy after Beau Ryan’s ‘seven-tackle try’ proved the difference between the two teams, propelling the Sharks into the semis while eliminating the Cowboys from season 2013. The motivation should be at an all-time high for a North Queensland side finally done with the hassles of Origin. Antonio Winterstein has found some fine try-scoring form, registering at least one in his past five games after admitting some embarrassment at being outscored by prop forward Matt Scott just a few weeks ago. And if reports of Robert Lui’s ties to Cronulla are true, Winterstein should look for more silver service as the five-eighth auditions up close and personal for his potential suitors.
Watch Out Cowboys: With the Sharks leading the league in offloads (13 per game), the Cowboys need to be on high alert for players such as fullback Michael Gordon who prey on broken play. Gordon carved up the Cowboys in their 20-18 Elimination Final with the kind of flash that earns him the moniker. His deadly combination of speed and timing tore up the North Queensland middle third, making 187 metres and throwing in three offloads of his own, including a try assist for good measure. A trademark of North Queensland’s away losses this year has been poor defensive energy, and if they leak offloads Gordon may just have a field day.
Plays To Watch: Since hooker Isaac De Gois left for Parramatta, halfback Jeff Robson has been taking the heat off new No. 9 Michael Lichaa by sliding into dummy-half more regularly. North Queensland markers need to be wary of Robson’s dummy, which is up there with the best in the game. He will look to make things happen for his fired-up forwards – including Andrew Fifita who was a welcome addition last week after two months on the sidelines – who will be charging extra hard on the primetime stage of Friday night footy.
Where It Will Be Won: Second-phase play. It is the meal ticket for the Sharks, who average 19 offloads in wins compared with 11 in losses. Andrew Fifita is a tied league leader (Corey Parker) in this category at three per game; however, the Sharks will be without the league’s third-best in captain Paul Gallen. If the Cowboys lock things up in the ruck, the NRL’s worst scoring team may find it tough to create other scoring avenues. Handily for the visitors, at 7.3 offloads conceded per game, they are a league-best at denying extra opportunities for opponents.
The History: Played 33; Sharks 21, Cowboys 12. Apart from a 12-game winning streak spanning over six years, the Cowboys have actually gotten the better of Cronulla historically. North Queensland has done the job in seven of the past 10 match-ups, including three of the past four in Sydney.
What Are The Odds:
Sportsbet is reporting twice the hold on the Cowboys ($1.65) in this one, despite their woeful record away from Townsville. Nearly all of the money in line betting is with the Cowboys, who receive 4.5 points start. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee – Gavin Morris; Assistant Referee – Alan Shortall; Touch Judges – Steve Carrall & Anthony Eliot; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld); Delayed 9.30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: Cowboys fans would definitely find some kind of closure in a drubbing defeat of Cronulla this Friday, but if their previous eight away games are anything to go by, they will leave much the same way they did at Allianz Stadium 10 months ago. In saying that, we see it as a titanic struggle for a Gallen-less Sharks to overcome a Cowboys outfit who has just hit their favourite time of year. North Queensland to break the away drought and win by six points.