Sharks v Cowboys Preview

Ricky Stuart on the Sharks' line-up

Neil Henry on a new-look Cowboys line-up

Hindmarsh Stadium, Adelaide
Sunday 2pm AEST

DESPONDENT fans of the Sharks and Cowboys are hoping for a much-improved performance from their sides this weekend – but more importantly two vital competition points. Cronulla and North Queensland travel to Adelaide (a Sharks home game that was moved to South Australia) with just one win each after five matches.

This simply is a game both will be hoping to win to get their seasons back on track. Last week the Sharks displayed a greater desire to attack but still fell short against the Raiders at home (24-14) while the Cowboys also lost at their fortress, defeated 14-10 by the high-flying Gold Coast Titans in an arm wrestle. This is a great opportunity for both teams to grab a victory and gain some confidence.

Watch out Sharks: Despite it failing to spark the Cowboys in recent weeks, Cronulla must be very wary of the Johnathan Thurston-Matt Bowen combination. In their most recent successful seasons of 2007 and 2005, ‘JT’ and ‘Mango’ simply tore their oppositions to shreds with their near-telepathic understanding of each other’s games.

This year it’s been a different story but as Bowen gains confidence in his return from knee surgery last season, he’ll return to the lofty heights that saw him labelled as one of rugby league’s most dangerous attackers. Quiet by his standards this season, Bowen’s stats are still reasonable – he’s made one line break, one line-break assist, two try assists and scored two tries.

Thurston has one line break, three line-break assists, a try and two try assists. They’ll click soon; it’s just a matter of when.

The Cowboys are scoring an average of 20 points per game in 2009 compared to the Sharks’ miserly 12.4 – Cronulla had better be on their best behaviour defensively if they’re to win this one. And they need to shut down Thurston and Bowen as well as attacking forces Willie Tonga and Aaron Payne.

Watch out Cowboys: While the Sharks have rarely troubled the scorers this season, the Cowboys would be wary of Cronulla’s new-found love of throwing the ball around.

Last week Cronulla threw 197 passes – 44 more than their season average. Insiders at Cronulla tell NRL.com this is because of the reuniting of halves Trent Barrett and Brett Seymour, who’ve been on the sidelines through injury and disciplinary reasons respectively.

Seymour (three try assists) and Barrett (three line-break assists, two tries and one try assist) last week were expansive in their distribution of the ball, with hat-trick winger David Simmons the beneficiary of some good passing.

The key for the Cowboys is to make tackles first-up and not slip off – expect Ricky Stuart to direct his players to run at Thurston (23 missed tackles for an effective tackle percentage of 76 per cent) and five-eighth Travis Burns (19 missed tackles at 81 per cent). If North Queensland can make their tackles ‘stick’, there’s a good chance the Cronulla attack will turn one-dimensional and predictable once again.

Where it will be won: Attack. Both teams have been abysmal with ball in hand this season, putting very little to opposition defences thus far in 2009.
Cronulla have the least line-breaks in the competition with 12 while the Cowboys aren’t too far ahead with just 14. Whichever team finds more attacking creativity should prevail in this clash.

Don’t write-off the impact the forwards will have – expect the winning forward pack to lay a dominant foundation for the playmakers to work from. While Cronulla will miss the impact of aggressive back-rower Paul Gallen (out suspended until Round 7), expect Luke Douglas (488 metres at an average of 98 per game), Anthony Tupou (374 metres at 75 per game plus two line-breaks) and the returning Kade Snowden (356 metres at 89 per game) to lead the battle up front.

For the Cowboys who dropped Carl Webb during the week after turning up to a recovery session late, big prop Antonio Kaufusi (364 metres at 73 per game plus one line break), red-headed enforcer Steve Southern (110 metres at 55 per game) and Luke O’Donnell (592 metres at 118 per game plus one line break, one line-break assist and one try assist) have a responsibility to lead the go-forward.

The History: Played 23; Sharks 18, Cowboys 5. The Sharks, who finished on equal points as grand-finalists Manly and Melbourne last season, won both battles by six points last season.

Conclusion: Expect to see two desperate teams battling for the points on Sunday afternoon. Both teams view this game as a ‘must-win’ encounter and the stakes are high.

But with an obviously improving attack and a star-studded line-up including Barrett, Tupou and former Bulldog Reni Maitua, the Sharks should end their four-match losing streak. But it’s not going to be easy, especially if ‘JT’ and ‘Mango’ find their mojo.

Match Officials: Referees: Ashley Klein & Chris James; Sideline officials: Peter Kirby & Mohamad Fajajo; Video Ref: Tim Mander.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live from 2pm AEST.