Sharks v Cowboys preview

Cronulla Sharks v North Queensland Cowboys
Toyota Stadium
Sunday, 3pm

Two finals certainties clash in the last round of the regular competition with the result having a huge impact on each team’s position on the ladder… and where, when and which team they play in Finals Week One.

The home side was desperately unlucky to be defeated in their Round 25 match against the Storm last Monday night. With just two minutes remaining, Cronulla led against Melbourne at AAMI Park… until the Storm front hit, scored two tries and took the lead – and the win – with the final play of the match. Had they held out against the Storm, this match could have been a battle for fifth position! Now Cronulla sit on 29 competition points, needing to win to keep the Raiders at bay and secure sixth position on the ladder and, under the new playoff system, a home Finals Week One clash with either the Raiders or Broncos… or if Father Christmas emerges or Harold Holt comes knocking, the Tigers, Titans, Dragons or Knights! If the Sharks lose and the Raiders win, Canberra will host the Sharks next week.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, were a blend of professionalism and precision in their clash against the Knights in Townsville.

With Newcastle’s season on the line, the home side won a midfield arm-wrestle before their stars Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen delivered the death knell to the Knights’ 2012 premiership hopes. A victory in this clash against Cronulla would, at absolute worst, consolidate their fifth place – but possibly shoot them into the top four and provide them with a second bite at the playoff cherry. With a points differential of +138, a win for the Cowboys could propel them as high as third. They’ll be aware of where they sit – and what they can position they can secure – before they take the field on Sunday, with third-placed South Sydney and fourth-placed Manly playing in the days prior to this clash.

Cronulla have made a few changes to their side this week.

Matthew Wright returns after recovering from a shoulder injury, as does Ben Ross (hand) and Anthony Tupou (hamstring). Those inclusions shift Issac Gordon and Sam Tagataese back to NSW Cup, with Shane Flanagan naming a five-man bench. The interchange currently includes Andrew Fifita, John Morris, Mark Taufua, Jayson Bukuya and Tyson Frizell, with one to be omitted. Don’t be surprised, however, if Flanagan makes some last-minute tweaks to his line-up – with Finals Week One just a matter of days away, the coach could very well be willing to test the fitness of two of his main attacking weapons in the top grade, Nathan Gardner and Ben Pomeroy, who have been sidelined by injury in recent weeks.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, have made just one change, with Michael Morgan (rested in Round 25) returning in place of mid-season recruit Anthony Mitchell. Coach Neil Henry, however, is still keeping his cards close to his chest ¬– he’s named a seven-man interchange bench that features some of their most dangerous attacking weapons including Mitchell and James Segeyaro, as well as Jason Taumalolo, Ashton Sims, Scott Bolton, Blake Leary and Joel Riethmuller. Segeyaro made a successful return from a three-month ankle injury on the weekend, playing 70 minutes and scoring two tries for Northern Pride in the Intrust Super Cup.

Watch Out Sharks: The Cowboys are the most dangerous side in the NRL – statistically at least! North Queensland crack opponents’ defensive lines more often than any other team in the competition – so far in 2012 they’ve broken the line 124 times (first in the NRL). Compare that with the Sharks’ record – just 88 line-breaks (last in the NRL) – and there’s plenty for coach Flanagan to worry about.

Danger Sign: The Cowboys are clicking into gear – and just at the right time of year. During the past three weeks in particular North Queensland have showcased their attacking abilities – and why every team with finals aspirations need to take notice. In their three-match winning streak, featuring victories against the Warriors, Dragons and Knights, the Cowboys have averaged more than 35 points. Their attack centres around the thoughtfulness of Thurston and the brilliance of Bowen – they were outstanding against the Knights – and stopping them is an incredibly tough task. The pair they have contributed 44 try assists, 29 line-breaks, 41 line-break assists and 15 tries so far in 2012. If they continue their rich vein of form they’ll more than likely rope in the Sharks.

Watch Out Cowboys: The Sharks love grinding out tough victories – especially on their home turf. So far in 2012, Cronulla have won seven of their 12 total victories by 12 points or less. The Sharkies love an arm wrestle… and it’d be a brave punter who believes this match – between two finals-bound sides desperate for the two points – will be anything but that.

Danger Sign: Cronulla will be determined to give retiring club legend Colin Best the send-off he deserves. In quite possibly their final home match of 2012, the Sharks should be ‘up’ for this clash in front of their home fans. (Best has scored 38 tries at the venue – fifth most of all-time – and will bow out as one of just 10 Cronulla players to feature in 100 games and score 50 tries for the club.) Coupled with the fact the Cowboys have won just two of the 12 matches played between the teams at Toyota Stadium, and this could well be the home side’s eighth victory in front of their local fans this season.

Spine v Spine: Much is made about the importance of the ‘spine’ of a team – the fullback, five-eighth, halfback and hooker have so much influence in the modern game. In this clash, the battle of Wright, Carney, Robson and De Gois against Bowen, Thurston, Morgan and Payne will be crucial. The Cowboys’ spine has been particularly influential of late… but interestingly they’ve enjoyed only limited success against the Sharks in Sydney, contributing just five tries since 1995. If the Sharks can lock down their opponent’s key attacking runners and playmakers, expect their forward pack – featuring some of the most effective ball-carriers and defenders in the game – to have too much grunt for the visitors.

Where It Will Be Won: Missed tackles – they will make or break this match… and both team’s finals foray in the weeks to come. In Round 4 in Townsville, North Queensland dominated almost all the statistical categories… but they missed an additional 10 tackles (24-14). Even with the most elusive runners and crafty playmakers in the game, the Cowboys can’t expect to fall off tackles and win matches. In their Round 4 clash, Thurston, Payne and Tamou all missed four tackles each (‘JT’ ranks 11th in the NRL for missed tackles with 77) – expect them to once again be targeted by Cronulla’s runners. If they fall off tackles like last time, it could be a tough night for the visitors. If they stick, however, the Sharks could have problems of their own.

The History: Played 29; Sharks 20, Cowboys 9. At Toyota Stadium, the Sharks enjoy a 10-2 advantage; however the Cowboys did defeat them in their most recent clash at the venue, 30-12 in 2011.

Last Time They Met: The Sharks caused an upset in their Round 4 clash at Dairy Farmers Stadium, winning 20-14. The home side dominated a lot of the key statistical categories, running for more metres (1492-1379), completing a higher percentage of sets (76 compared with 71) and making fewer errors (10 opposed to 14), but the visitors came out on top on the scoreboard.

Coming off the back of a win against reigning premiers Manly a week earlier, the Sharks scored late tries in both halves to claim their first win against the Cowboys since 2010. The Cowboys dominated possession with 54 per cent, but just couldn’t crack the Cronulla defence when it mattered.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Dave Eastwood; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Alan Shortall.

The Way We See It: Statistically, a number of signs point to a Cronulla win. The Cowboys have featured in just eight daytime games over the past two seasons for three wins, and the Sharks have won 10 of 12 games against the Cowboys at Toyota Stadium. For those reasons, and the fact Cronulla won the clash between the two sides earlier in the year, we’re leaning towards the home side. We’ll take the Sharkies in a dogfight, with the outcome highly likely to be decided by 12 points or less. Cronulla by four.

Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 6pm.

*Statistics: NRL Stats