Cowboys v Sharks
Tipped to be one of the league's cellar dwellers this season, Cronulla is within striking distance of the top eight and look be laying a platform towards a finals appearance.
Defying the odds is nothing new to the Sharks, and they will be helped by the absence of North Queensland lynchpin Johnathan Thurston.
Not only is Thurston the brains of the operation, he provides a leadership and a level of competitiveness that is unmatched across the league.
Without a top-flight playmaker, the Cowboys could be found wanting when it comes time to score.
The area of concern with Thurston's replacement, Michael Morgan, is his inexperience as primary playmaker. Top 10 in line-break assists last season, we have all seen his playmaking exploits running and creating off plays set up by Thurston. Generating the plays himself, however, is a different story.
While execution could be a problem, effort surely will not be. Without Thurston, coach Paul Green will demand his men to step up and fill the leadership and energy void left by JT.
There will be no shortage of leadership and mongrel either from the league's scrappers, led by skipper Paul Gallen (who will want some match fitness under his belt before Origin III), who is listed as 18th man. Gallen has been immense in the matches he's played in 2015, averaging over 220 per game and in tandem with veteran Michael Ennis, will stop at nothing to rattle the Cowboys' cages.
Apart from Gallen's inclusion to an extended bench, the Sharks are unchanged from the line-up that stunned Newcastle last week, while the Cowboys shift Morgan to the No. 7 jersey. Young forward Patrick Kaufusi will make his NRL debut on the bench in place of Sam Hoare, while hooker Cameron King joins the interchange.
Watch Out Cowboys: The Sharks' pet play is a swift outside-in movement looking to get their most dangerous ball runner, Jack Bird, over the line. Ennis will look to his right and find halfback Jeff Robson at first receiver, who continues to Luke Lewis. Lewis will engage the defensive line, distracting them from a charging Jack Bird who runs a nice line, splitting Robson and Lewis to receive back on the inside. Defences know it is coming but stopping it is another story. The Sharks pulled it off to perfection on the stroke of half-time against Newcastle last week to get them back in the contest.
Watch Out Sharks: While it is unlikely that Morgan will get another crack at Origin this year, he will want to put his best foot forward to earn a place for Game Three. He is 11th in the league for average line breaks and will run the ball even more as his possession count significantly increases.
Key Match-Up: Jake Granville v Michael Ennis. Two of the most dissimilar No. 9s in the competition will be vital to their side's chances of success. Granville is the Cowboys' sparkplug in the middle while Ennis crafts and grafts his way through the 80 minutes. Granville will likely add to his 6.2 dummy-half runs per game as he provides added direction more often in the absence of Thurston. Ennis is not as active out of dummy half but his kicking game is crucial for Cronulla, putting boot to ball 71 times this year compared to Granville's five kicks. As the Cowboys have won 11-straight, it is prime niggle time for Ennis as he looks to gain any edge he possibly can.
The History: Played 35; Cowboys 14, Sharks 21. The Cowboys have owned Cronulla of late, winning seven of their past nine encounters with a +84 points differential. It was a Monday night for the ages last time these two met at 1300SMILES Stadium. The bookies saw the Sharks as no-hopers with a 30.5 points start – unprecedented in this century – but they more than made a game of it. A Johnathan Thurston field goal put the Cowboys up one, but five-eighth Daniel Holdsworth nailed a 45-metre field goal to send the game to golden point. It was – perhaps unsurprisingly – Thurston who sealed the win with a one-pointer in extra time.
What Are The Odds: Cowboys ($1.52) v Sharks ($2.55). The Sharks with the start has been the most popular bet of the weekend according to Sportsbet. There’s still more money on the Cowboys head to head. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee – Grant Atkins; Assistant Referee – Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges – Michael Wise & Belinda Sleeman; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Steve Folkes.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm
The Way We See it: Cronulla always seem to grow an extra leg when playing the league's top teams, but we can't see them matching it with the home side despite missing Thurston. Complacency will not be an issue for North Queensland as many will put their hand up to fill the void. Cowboys by six in a defence-oriented affair.