Dairy Farmers Stadium
The Cowboys will have their eye on a top-four finish if they can topple the Sharks at Dairy Farmers Stadium on Saturday night.
Currently sitting in sixth spot on 18 points, a victory will allow North Queensland to stay in touch with fourth-placed Melbourne on 21 points.
But after missing a chance to close the gap when they lost 30-18 to the Bulldogs last round, coach Neil Henry welcomes back stars Matt Bowen, Carl Webb and Luke O’Donnell for this weekend’s clash, while the Sharks will still be missing Origin representatives Trent Barrett and Paul Gallen.
Henry has made four changes to the side that went down last week, while Sharks coach Ricky Stuart has made just the one change to his team.
Bowen returns after missing two weeks with a rib injury, forcing Ty Williams into the centres. Williams replaces Ben Harris, who is expected to miss 2-3 weeks with a hamstring tear.
Grant Rovelli has been selected at five-eighth after Travis Burns succumbed to a recurring knee injury, with Henry admitting that the injury has caused confidence issues with the former Manly five-eighth.
Enforcers Webb and O’Donnell also return from injuries, pushing Steve Southern, Manase Manuokafoa and James Tamou back onto a six-man bench.
However, while the Cowboys gain three representative players, the Sharks are still without two of theirs after their four-game winning streak was snapped by an unexpected 19-12 loss to the Roosters.
Trent Barrett continues to serve his suspension for his hit on Greg Inglis in State of Origin II, while Paul Gallen has succumbed to a shoulder injury. Veteran forward Bryan Norrie takes his place on the bench.
Gallen’s shoulder injury adds to Cronulla’s long list of players sidelined including Ben Ross (neck), Brett Kearney (foot), Brett Seymour (knee), Jacob Selmes (ankle) and Blake Green (quad).
For the Cowboys, Burns joins Clint Amos (knee), Ashley Graham (foot) and Shannon Hegarty (back) as grandstand spectators.
Watch out Cowboys: Sharks halfback Scott Porter will be primed for a big one after signing a new two-year contract with the Sharks this week. Porter has been one of the feel-good stories of the NRL this year, being plucked out of obscurity to help steer the Sharks away from the wooden spoon.
Since his debut in Round 12, Porter has averaged 33.65 metres for each of his kicks, second only in halfbacks to Jamie Soward (35.67). He was easily the best kicker in Round 16, finding 717 metres. His kicking game has been top-shelf, and has been a more than adequate fill-in in for the injured Brad Seymour.
Without Barrett and Gallen, Porter will have to continue his outstanding form if Cronulla have any chance of causing an upset.
Watch out Sharks: News of injuries to Queensland forwards Petero Civoniceva and Ben Hannant will have Cowboys big boppers Shane Tronc and Matthew Scott itching for a shot at a Maroons jumper.
Tronc has played in every game this year, totalling 1793 metres (9th in NRL) with 228 carries (2nd in NRL) to go with his 24 offloads, while Scott has amassed 1851 metres (6th) in 213 runs (9th). Both Tronc and Scott have become two of North Queensland’s most dependable forwards, providing plenty of time and space for halfback Johnathan Thurston.
Expect both big men to raise their games for a chance to be part of the Queensland’s attempt at an Origin whitewash.
Where it will be won: In the forwards. The Cowboys have the stingiest defensive line, conceding only 1197.3 metres per game – the least of any team in the NRL - whereas the Sharks struggle to make territory, averaging 1211.7 metres a game for 3rd fewest in the competition.
With the elusive Matt Bowen returning the ball, the Sharks will not be able to rely on the kicking game of Scott Porter, and the forwards will have to work very hard in getting over the advantage line.
The history: Played 24; Sharks 18, Cowboys 6. The Sharks have enjoyed playing the Cowboys in recent years, having won five of the past eight clashes including two of their past three at Dairy Farmers Stadium. They have won 8 of 12 at Dairy Farmers overall.
Their last encounter was at Hindmarsh Stadium in Adelaide back in Round 6 when the Cowboys inflicted a fifth straight loss on the Sharks in front of 8547 fans.
Conclusion: Travelling to Dairy Farmers is hard for any team, and when you head up there without two of your best players, it’s almost impossible. Cronulla’s bubble burst last week against the Roosters and they can only win so many games without a fully fit Barrett, Gallen and co.
The Cowboys have won their past five games at home and with the return of Matt Bowen and Luke O’Donnell, North Queensland have too much riding on this game to be giving points away.
Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Grant Atkins; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.