Cowboys v Sharks preview

North Queensland Cowboys v Cronulla Sharks
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 8.30pm (Qld time)

There’s plenty for the Cowboys and Sharks to play for in this clash. After a week of turmoil in Townsville, North Queensland will be aiming to put a smile back on the faces of locals who have been left to pick up the pieces after a 100km/h mini-tornado hit town. The Sharks, on the other hand, are aiming to become the first team to overcome the hangover of Monday Night Football in 2012, and with it record their first pair of back-to-back victories since the middle of 2011.

It’s been a mixed start to the season for both teams, and coaches Neil Henry and Shane Flanagan will be particularly eager to see their outfits get over the line in this clash to gain much-needed consistency. 

North Queensland started their year dismally at home, suffering an embarrassing 18-0 loss against the Titans, last year’s wooden-spooners, before rebounding in Round 2 to pip the Broncos 28-26 at Suncorp. Last round’s 42-6 shellacking of the Eels proved dynamic duo Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen still have it… and that opposition teams still have lots to fear. In atrocious conditions last Saturday night, the Cowboys still entertained their loyal fans, scoring eight tries and making nine line-breaks and 43 tackle-breaks in the process. At the heart of their success was their completion rate – an admirable 77 per cent in the wet and windy conditions – and strong territorial gain, with a whopping 11 players running for more than 100 metres.

Cronulla began 2012 in heart-breaking fashion, suffering a controversial golden-point loss to the Wests Tigers at Leichhardt Oval. In Round 2 at Toyota Stadium against the Knights, the Sharks squandered numerous first-half chances to record an 18-6 loss to a team whittled down to just one bench player. Last week against the Sea Eagles, however, brighter signs emerged for the Sharks as they overcame Manly 17-14. Finally, Flanagan’s men showed they can control the ball (completing 78 per cent of their sets), score points (17 in the first half) and continue to dominate the middle-of-the-field battle (running for 310 metres more than Manly).

The Cowboys, not surprisingly, have kept their same winning team from last round, with the addition of former Dragon Ricky Thorby to an extended bench the only change. 

Meanwhile Sharks coach Shane Flanagan has added Bryce Gibbs (hand injury) to the team that defeated the Sea Eagles, although the bookend is still in some doubt. Gibbs’ inclusion pushes inspirational leader Paul Gallen back to lock, with Wade Graham shifting to the bench. Flanagan has named an extended six-man interchange, with Mark Taufua added to last week’s winning team. Centre Ben Pomeroy has been named to play despite suffering a dislocated finger against Manly.

Watch Out Cowboys: After more than eight months of trying, Cronulla have finally won a match! Following 10 losses on the trot, the Sharks are on the board in 2012… and what happens next is anyone’s guess. There’s no doubt there’s a much-needed confidence boost buzzing through the Sharks’ team right now, and that is a great sign for Cronulla fans. Last year, the Sharkies only won seven matches, but when they won they had a habit of recording back-to-back victories, like in Rounds 2 and 3, and from Rounds 15-18. After defeating the 2011 premiers last week, expect anything from Cronulla. The even better news for Cronulla fans is the team loves travelling to Townsville – they score more points on average at Dairy Farmers Stadium (22) than any other venue.

Danger Sign: Experts including Ricky Stuart said from the outset that the Sharks wouldn’t get the best out of Todd Carney until an organising playmaker was put in the No.7 jersey. Well, last week it happened, with former Eel Jeff Robson promoted to first grade, and with it came Cronulla’s first win of 2012. Against the Sea Eagles on Monday night, Robson took control of his team, organising his backline and steering his forwards around the park with controlled kicking (12 kicks for 427 metres) and passing games. That control allowed Carney greater freedom, as well as the Sharks’ outside backs like Pomeroy and fullback Nathan Gardner, who both scored a try. Expect the halves pairing to provide the Sharks with increased attacking options – and a better chance of success – throughout the season.

Watch Out Sharks: The ‘Harlem Globetrotters of the NRL’, the Cowboys, are back in full flight. After a shocking start to the season against the Titans, North Queensland are slowly regaining their confidence and, a major worry for the Sharks, their attacking impetus. Against the Broncos in Brisbane, the Cowboys showed why they’re known as the ‘entertainers’, with some scintillating four-pointers. One to Brent Tate involved a crisp Thurston inside pass, a pin-point accurate Bowen cross-field kick and an athletic bat-down by winger Ashley Graham. Last week against the Eels, Cowboys fans were also given value for money, with one Bowen try a particular highlight. After a right-to-left shift involving half-a-dozen players the Cowboys sprinted downfield from deep inside their own half, before ‘JT’ put a perfectly weighed grubber behind the line. Bowen emerged from nowhere to slip onto the ball, slide across the turf and record another memorable Cowboys four-pointer. It’s exciting stuff, and the message is clear for the Sharks – “expect the unexpected”.

Danger Sign: ‘Mango’ Matt Bowen is ripe. You could be excused for thinking the electric fullback, 30, was past his prime… until two weeks ago. Sure, in Round 1 (57 metres, two errors and a penalty) he had an off night, like most of his team-mates did, but following two brilliant efforts he’s clearly back to his best. Against the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium, Bowen scored two vital four-pointers as well as recording 105 metres, six tackle-breaks, one try assist and three line-breaks. In Round 3 against the Eels, he was similarly devastating, putting himself in the right place at the right time on the way to another strong individual effort (one try, 93 metres and 45 receives). If Cronulla can silence Bowen, they’re well on their way to winning this one… but if they don’t, Cowboys fans will have lots to cheer about.

Ray Thompson v Jeff Robson: In teams with the superstar power of Thurston, Gallen, Matt Scott and Carney, sometimes the influence of the ‘one-per-cent’ players are overlooked. You know the type: the team-mates who get their job done with minimum of fuss and fanfare. Thompson and Robson are integral if often overlooked cogs in their teams’ line-ups. Both No.7s have a job to do – and the simple, watered-down version of their instructions is “keep the pressure off the No.6”. With Thurston and Carney outside them, Thompson and Robson are the attacking foils for their teams, asked to lead their team around and give space to their celebrated five-eighths. Last week, both Thompson (ironically the first No.6 to play every minute of every game in a season for North Queensland) and Robson did their jobs effectively. Already this season, Thompson (20 runs, 179 metres, 75 tackles and 151 kick metres) has proved an error-free sidekick to JT, an effective foil who can run, pass or kick when his celebrated playmaking partner is out of action. Robson, on the other hand, was overlooked until Round 3… and when he was given the opportunity he gleefully accepted, making 30 effective tackles, one tackle-break and booting the Sea Eagles into submission with 427 kick metres. Who’ll perform their duties better? Most likely, the winning team’s No.7.

Where It Will Be Won: After energy-sapping performances in difficult conditions in Round 3, both teams might be lacking a little juice in this match, particularly the Sharks with a short turnaround. That’s all the more reason why the ball-control battle will be a big factor. Last week’s performances by both teams showed why holding the pill is arguably the biggest factor in winning or losing – both the Cowboys and Sharks won with 56 and 57 per cent of possession respectively. But who’s going to respect the football most? In Round 1 against the Titans, Thurston made a whopping six errors, a big sign of his influence and importance. Completion rates are king.
The History: Played 28; Sharks 19, Cowboys 9. The Sharks have the wood on North Queensland at Dairy Farmers, winning nine of their 15 clashes there.

The Last Time They Met: Despite the records heavily in the Sharks’ favour, the Cowboys won both 2011 clashes. In Round 25 in Townsville, the Cowboys came from behind with 10 minutes to go to beat the Sharks 28-20. The win, which pushed North Queensland into the top four with one round to play, came at a cost however, with boom rookie forward Tariq Sims breaking his leg. Another young forward, 18-year-old prop Jason Taumalolo stole the show for the home side, scoring two tries. Earlier in the season at Toyota Stadium in Round 7, the Cowboys recorded an emphatic 30-12 victory. The Sharks, however, could blame the loss on a crippling injury toll, with backline stars Albert Kelly and Nathan Gardner forced from the field with leg injuries.

Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Michael Wise; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: Gotta love matches like this where two teams swelling in confidence come head to head! This is a difficult match to pick, with the Sharks consistent performers in Townsville; however the Monday Night Football hangover and the travel to FNQ could prove difficult to overcome.

Expect ‘JT’ (who is just 13 points away from becoming the first Cowboy to reach 1000 points) and ‘Mango’ to continue the magic, but not without a fight. North Queensland by six points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 8.30pm (Qld), 9.30pm (NSW).