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Sharks v Cowboys
Allianz Stadium
Saturday 4pm

Sudden-death finals football has arrived at last. The First Elimination Final of the 2013 Telstra NRL Finals Series pits the courageous Cronulla Sharks up against the never-say-die North Queensland Cowboys – and what a clash it promises to be!

It’s hard to believe either of these sides has made it this far after the at-times horrible year they’ve endured. For very different reasons, few predicted the Sharks and Cowboys would be finals bound at various stages, let alone playing each other in the first match of a double-header at Allianz Stadium in Week One of the playoffs.

At Cronulla it’s been a case of seemingly one drama after another in what is quite probably their worst year off the field but could still prove their best ever season on it. Their list of dramas includes but is not limited to the ongoing ASADA investigation into alleged systemic doping at the club in 2011.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, were also written off throughout 2013 despite possessing a roster most critics consider one of the best in the competition. With Matt Bowen, Brent Tate, Johnathan Thurston, James Tamou, Matt Scott and Tariq Sims on their books, few expected the Cowboys to limp through the majority of the regular season – but they did just that, victorious in just six matches from the opening 20 rounds of competition. Only a six-game winning streak from Rounds 21-26 saved their season, but it was too late for coach Neil Henry, who was told he wasn’t required for 2014 just days before his side rediscovered their winning ways. Following victories against the Rabbitohs (30-12 in Round 21), Panthers (36-4 in Round 22), Titans (22-10 in Round 23), Knights (26-6 in Round 24), Sharks (31-18 in Round 25) and Tigers (50-22 in Round 26), North Queensland enter the finals with better recent form than any other side in the competition.

Cronulla have made a raft of changes to the side that beat the Raiders 38-18 in Canberra on Monday night. All are a result of rested players returning, as well as the completion of captain Paul Gallen’s one-match suspension. Todd Carney, Wade Graham, Jayson Bukuya, Anthony Tupou and Gallen return to the Sharks’ line-up, with Chad Townsend, Tyrone Peachey and Tupou Sopoaga returning to the NSW Cup. Carney, Graham and Gallen have been named to start, with Tupou and Bukuya part of a six-man bench that also includes Isaac De Gois, Chris Heighington, Bryce Gibbs and Ben Ross.

For the Cowboys, co-captain Matthew Scott is in line to make an earlier-than-predicted return from injury. Originally expected to be sidelined for three weeks after breaking his middle finger against the Sharks in Round 25, the front-rower has been named in the Cowboys’ starting pack just eight days after undergoing surgery. He will require a surgeon’s clearance before getting the final okay to make the trip south. Scott’s inclusion in the starting pack pushes Scott Bolton to the interchange bench. It’s the only change to the Cowboys side that beat the Wests Tigers last Saturday as they attempt to equal the club record of seven consecutive victories, set in 2007, and end Cronulla’s 2013 season.

This match is prop James Tamou’s 100th game in the NRL while back-rower Tariq Sims is due to hit the 50-game milestone.

Watch Out Sharks: There are plenty of stats-based reasons why North Queensland’s season, in theory at least, shouldn’t end here. Not since 2002 have the Sharks won a finals fixture at a venue other than Remondis Stadium, and history shows 83 per cent of teams this century that qualified for the finals on the back of six successive wins won in the opening week. Combined with the fact the Cowboys have scored more points at Allianz Stadium than any venue outside of Townsville (367), and that this season has defensively been the Cowboys’ best ever (17.9 points conceded per game), and there are plenty of warning signs for the Sharks.

Watch Out Cowboys: Cronulla have reason for optimism, too – it’s been their best finish to a regular season since 2008. On the back of a powerful bunch of forwards (the Sharks’ pack gain more metres for more tackle-breaks and offloads than any other club), Flanagan’s crew have scored 30-points-plus more times this year than in their previous four seasons combined (seven occasions). If this match develops into an arm-wrestle the odds fall in the Sharks’ favour too – they have won eight of 12 games this season that were decided by 10 points or less.

Plays To Watch: Expect the majority of the Cowboys’ scoring opportunities to come from the creative powers of Thurston and Bowen. Centres Brent Tate and Kane Linnett, as well as wingers Wayne Ulugia and Antonio Winterstein, will receive opportunities from their dynamic duo – it’s just a matter of how frequently the opportunities arise and how the Sharks deal with them.

For Cronulla, Carney’s running, passing and kicking game need to be monitored, but the ball-playing of Gallen, Tupou and Luke Lewis could prove pivotal too.

Key Match-Up: The two big prop-forwards entering this clash under even bigger injury clouds – Andrew Fifita up against Matt Scott.

Both sides desperately need their big Origin bookends to take the field this weekend – they’re crucial to their team’s chances of success in their most important match all season. Fifita, struggling to overcome a calf injury sustained against the Raiders, isn’t just a metre-eating machine (averaging 148 per match) – he leads the club for tries scored in 2013 with eight, too! Scott, meanwhile, trying to overcome a finger injury, has already produced the most runs (337) and metres (2994) of his decade-long career this year.

Where It Will Be Won: Todd Carney and Johnathan Thurston are crucial. The No.6s hold the aces up their sleeves during the regular season – and now the stakes are even higher. Carney is the creative force behind the Sharks – he has produced more than three times the number of try assists (20) of his nearest teammate. It is simple – shut him down and you’ve pretty much shut the Sharks down, too.

But it’s a similar case with ‘JT’ – in fact, Thurston has either scored or directly created 30.3 per cent of all Cowboys tries since 2005!

The History: Played 32; Sharks 20, Cowboys 12.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Henry Perenara; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Michael Wise; Video Referees – Jason Robinson & Matt Rodwell.

NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Sharks v Cowboys clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 3.30pm.

The Way We See It: The winning streak is wonderful but we just can’t see the Cowboys toppling Cronulla in this one. The Sharks have by far been the more consistent side all season – as their fifth-position finish indicates – and North Queensland haven’t won a finals fixture outside of Queensland since 2005. We’ll back Cronulla by eight points.

* Statistics: NRL Stats


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