Sharks v Cowboys
Toyota Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

Cronulla fans might just be thanking the heavens for bogy teams this week as they go about trying to arrest a worrying three-game losing streak against a team going the other way after back-to-back wins.

The Sharks had us all impressed with early season wins over the Dragons and Panthers in successive weeks but since then they have lost three straight – and the past two were certainly winnable.

It has dropped them out of the top eight to ninth position on the NRL ladder.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, have notched consecutive wins over the Gold Coast and Canberra and as a result sit in fourth spot on the ladder.

But they will have to overcome a significant hoodoo in their quest for three straight wins – they need to win at Toyota Stadium, a place they have only won at once from 11 attempts.

The home side have remained faithful to the team that lost 24-20 to Newcastle last week with the only change being the addition of Dean Collis to a five-man bench.

The Cowboys have named Ashton Sims to start at prop with Leeson Ah Mau back to the bench and Gavin Cooper and James Tamou have been added to the reserves list, which at this early stage has six members. If Cooper plays it will be his 100th NRL appearance.

In an interesting sidenote the Sharks need just 16 points to overtake the Newtown Jets as the 10th highest scoring club in Australian league history. Maybe they can get there with help from centre Colin Best, who needs just three more tries to notch 100 for his career.

Watch Out Sharks: The Cowboys have come out firing in the opening halves of their matches this season. It was another blistering start against Canberra last week that helped pave the way to victory. They led 24-6 at the break on the back of an 81 per cent completion rate and went on to win from there.

The side leads all teams in the NRL for first halves in terms of line-breaks (18), tries (16) and points scored (88) whilst conceding only 42 in defence. This is in sharp contrast to last season when they were the NRL ‘whipping boys’. This is now their best start to a season since 2006. The Sharks can’t afford to start sluggishly or Thurston and co will get the jump on them.

Danger Sign: If the Cowboys score first, the Sharks have to respond positively. If they drop their heads the Cowboy carnage could continue.

Watch Out Cowboys: It’s no secret the Sharks’ attack is getting plenty of impetus from fullback Nathan Gardner, who looks threatening every time he gets the football. In a losing team last week he scored twice, added two line-breaks, a try assist, three offloads, seven tackle-breaks and ran for 132 metres. He was also very unlucky not to earn a penalty at the death to give the Sharks another crack at victory when he was chasing a kick through and was taken out.

He now leads the NRL with 49 tackle-breaks, has seven line-breaks (second in NRL), has two dummy-half line-breaks (most in NRL) and is averaging 13.2 metres per kick return – that’s higher than established stars including Jarryd Hayne, Matt Bowen, Billy Slater and Darius Boyd!

Defensively he has also been superb, tallying seven try saves (second most in the NRL).

Danger Sign: Gardner can bob up anywhere but is at his most lethal when supporting players up the middle of the ruck or when presented with a broken field on kick-returns. The Cowboys need to kick away from him, or at least provide a great chase.

Plays To Watch: Anthony Tupou’s offloads on the edges; Gardner doing something freakish; Gallen running his legs off; the Thurston show-and-go; Kalifa Faifai Loa performing some acrobatic and speed miracles; Bowen’s chip and chase.

Where It Will Be Won: Goal line defence. A high percentage of both Cronulla’s and North Queensland’s tries have come from close to the goal line – inside 10 metres to be exact.

While the Cowboys have scored five tries from over halfway, the rest of their four-pointers (20) have come from inside 20 metres, with 14 of those inside 10 metres.

The Sharks have added 12 of their 21 tries from close range.

It is obviously the hardest part of the field to defend but the side that does better in this region is likely to sing the victory song.

In a good sign for Sharks fans, the Cronulla boys have conceded just six tries from close range this year, while the Cowboys have leaked 10.

The History: Played 26; Sharks 19, Cowboys 7. The Sharks have a great record over the Cowboys and have won five of the past eight games, although the boys from North Queensland have won two of the past three.

The trip to the Sutherland Shire has not been good for the Cowboys in the past; they have won just once in 11 matches.

Conclusion: The Sharks have been on the skids in terms of results but they really should’ve beaten Manly and had chances to beat Newcastle, so their form isn’t all bad. A return home against the Cowboys, who struggle at the venue, could be the catalyst they need to push back into the top eight.

The Cowboys have the firepower to win and win well, but we’re sensing a Sharks frenzy in the making.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Steve Lyons; Touch Judges – Adam Reid & Clayton Sharpe; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.