Cowboys v Sharks
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

The North Queensland Cowboys this week need to get serious if they’re to get their NRL premiership challenge back on the rails after three straight losses to the Rabbitohs, Broncos and Bulldogs. This week Neil Henry’s men need to make a point – and the struggling Sharks, who are staring down the barrel of a seventh straight loss, are the perfect opponent to use to get back into form. 

Last start the Cowboys were far from disgraced, a spirited South Sydney line-up pulling a rabbit out of the hat in the final minutes to take the game into golden-point extra time.

Eventually the bunnies won courtesy of a controversial penalty awarded to Souths after forward Issac Luke was ruled to have copped a high shot from Cowboys hooker James Segeyaro. After the match the Cowboys were forced to deny they are in a slump, instead insisting the “bounce of the ball” hadn’t gone their way in recent weeks. The Sharks, on the other hand, looked in total control against the Roosters at the SFS, leading 22-12 at the break. Cronulla led 25-18 with just seven minutes to go... until they folded like whipped cream. Weak defence and incomprehensible errors were particular concerns in the performance, as the Roosters scampered home with three quick tries, scoring a total of 24 points in the second half, to win the match 36-25.

For the Cowboys, though, this match is about more than simply getting their premiership dream back on track.

Currently sitting in fifth place on 30 points, the Cowboys can secure a top-four finish with a win this week against the Sharks and a victory over the Warriors, who sit in fourth place with a better for-and-against points differential, in New Zealand on Saturday week. For Cronulla, however, this match is purely about pride – they can’t feature in the finals even if every match result went their way. The Sharks currently sit in 13th position but could leapfrog the Roosters and Panthers with a victory this week and another next week against the Tigers.

Key Cowboy Johnathan Thurston is playing for more than a win this week, though – he’s currently just five points shy of recording a personal point-scoring milestone. He currently sits on 995 points and needs only five to register 1000 for his NRL career.

North Queensland came through their match last Friday against the bunnies with few injury concerns. Coach Neil Henry told the Cowboys’ website captains Matt Scott (back) and Johnathan Thurston (soreness) would both be right to play. Forward Scott Bolton has been added to the 18-man team which is otherwise the same as the one defeated by South Sydney. Cronulla, meanwhile, have made a host of changes after their capitulation. Gone from the Sharks’ side is centre Ben Pomeroy, winger Nathan Stapleton and fullback Nathan Gardner, with the trio to play in the NSW Cup, while Chad Townsend and Tyson Frizell will both play in the Toyota Cup. Isaac Gordon replaces Gardner at fullback while young winger Stewart Mills has been given another shot in the top grade. Also back in the Cronulla line-up is Colin Best who has overcome a niggling hamstring twinge, while Albert Kelly replaces Townsend to partner Wade Graham in the halves.

Watch Out Cowboys: The Sharks have nothing to lose and as such might be very keen to throw the ball around. Expect returning playmaker Albert Kelly to feature heavily in the Sharks’ attacking plays. The diminutive, quick-stepping and lightning-fast half or five-eighth can create major dramas for opposition defences with his ad-lib style. The cousin of Greg Inglis, Kelly plays in a similar manner to Titans’ veteran Preston Campbell... and the 20-year-old will need to be every bit as effective if the Sharks are to be competitive in this one.

Danger Sign: The Sharks are at long odds to win – at time of publication they were $5.75 outsiders – and no-one expects them to be competitive in Townsville against a team pushing for the top four. Cronulla haven’t won in a month and a half... and they have nothing to play for. But the Sharks are capable of springing an upset – they did in Round 2 this very year in a similar situation against the reigning premiers, St George Illawarra.

Watch Out Sharks: After two weeks working his way back to match fitness, Johnathan Thurston will be keen to notch a comprehensive victory. Thurston, prior to the Cowboys’ meeting with Brisbane two weeks ago, hadn’t played for North Queensland since Origin III after suffering medial ligament damage. He will be busting to get back into form – and Cowboys insiders tell us ‘JT’ is almost back to full health and is itching to get the Cowboys’ premiership dream back on track. Last week there were signs he was nearing full confidence – he ran for 106 metres, scored a try and set up some promising attacking raids. Watch out Sharks, indeed.

Danger Sign: If the Cowboys are on the front foot and the ball is sent wide to Thurston and Bowen, the Sharks will be in trouble. Cronulla’s backline defence has been woeful in the latter part of this season, ever since the Dragons carved many paths through their three-quarter line six weeks ago.
 
Plays To Watch: ‘JT’ head-faking left and dummying right before hitting the accelerator and running himself; Matt Bowen angling cross-field before isolating and slicing past tired defenders; Dallas Johnson tackling himself to a standstill... for the 23rd time this season; Albert Kelly bobbing up next to anyone with the football, looking for an opportunity to break the line and run downfield; Sharks’ props Luke Douglas and Kade Snowden bashing it forward; Paul Gallen competing for absolutely everything.

Where It Will Be Won: The Cowboys’ backs far outshine the Sharks’ backs, that’s for sure – North Queensland have Bowen, Thurston, Brent Tate and Willie Tonga while Cronulla are pretty light-on. This match, however, will be won in the forwards. For the backs of either side to dominate, the big boppers in the middle of the pitch need to lay a platform to enable the halves to get creative and set up scoring plays. 

The battle of the locks, Dallas Johnson and Paul Gallen, should be particularly interesting – both are workhorses of the highest calibre. Gallen (averaging 186 metres per game) is the game’s strongest ball carrier, while Johnson is one of the league’s best tacklers with 937 so far. The battle up the guts will determine how much quality ball the backs see – expect a potentially bone-rattling clash. Big props James Tamou (107 metres per match) and Matt Scott (115 metres per match) will be keen to get a roll on against their opposites Luke Douglas (105 metres per match) and Kade Snowden (117 metres per match). The battle of the big guys should be very entertaining.

The History: Played 27; Sharks 19, Cowboys 8. The Cowboys have an excellent recent record against the Sharks, winning three of their past four clashes. Earlier this season North Queensland beat Cronulla 30-12 at Toyota Stadium. Cronulla won last year’s sole encounter in Townsville, 20-19, but in 2009 the Cowboys were victorious in two matches, 24-4 and 34-10. Interestingly the Sharks have the wood on the Cowboys at Dairy Farmers – they’ve won nine of 14 matches.

Conclusion: The odds are definitely in favour of the Cowboys – and against the Sharks – in this clash. If North Queensland’s forwards get an early roll on, expect their entertaining outside men to put on a show – the score could be anything! 

But if Cronulla’s big men turn up ready to play this could be more competitive than most expect, especially considering the Cowboys’ recent bad run.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony De Las Heras & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Peter Gough; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats