Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v North Queensland Cowboys
North Queensland will be out for a clean sweep of games in New South Wales when two of the league's hottest properties go head to head at Remondis Stadium on Saturday.
It seems unthinkable for the perennially poor travellers to be in such a position after going 3-7 in NSW (including Canberra) last season, but their travel procedures have been modified and the Cowboys are more unified as group than last season.
The Sharks' past two months have gone swimmingly.
They are playing the grinding style of football that wins finals games, their captain and inspirational leader is healthy again and playing some of his better football and they currently riding a four-game winning streak among six wins from their past seven.
Confidence levels at the club are sky high and it's a nice change of pace after the group was mentally stretched to their limits and at times beaten before even stepping onto the park last year.
Both sides go in unchanged from their respective wins last week.
Watch Out Sharks: The strike power of North Queensland is well chronicled, but the Sharks also need to be mindful of matching the Cowboys' muscle up the middle. With 17 and 16 runs respectively in Round 16, Andrew (140 metres) and David Fifita (132 metres) were the mainstays for Cronulla and helped win the field position battle which led to their comeback win. With a distinct lack of muscle for the rest of the season after the suspensions of both men, Cronulla need the likes of Sam Tagataese and veteran Matt Prior to stand up in their absence.
Watch Out Cowboys: Hooker Michael Ennis put in his best showing of the season back in the Round 16 boilover. Ennis was the man of the moment with three try assists, a game-high 40 tackles (nine more than anyone else), four dummy-half runs and four kicks. With his ability to read space either side of the ruck, he made any forward willing to run off his hip with enthusiasm look like a star. The problem this time around is that two of the players he assisted tries for (Luke Lewis and Andrew Fifita) are not playing. This could be a bigger problem for the Sharks than it appears at face value because both Lewis and Fifita scored their tries one pass off the ruck from very short range. Both men are stars of the competition and possess the combination of strength and ability to read a defence, but can Cronulla's alternate options replicate that?
Key Match-Up: Paul Gallen v Jason Taumalolo. Sharks strongman Tagataese was one of the main igniters for Cronulla's comeback win with a couple of kamikaze runs that lifted the visitors' enthusiasm, but the main man this time around will be the G-Train. Both Gallen and Taumalolo run like props out of the back row and both men can change the momentum of a game with just one powerful charge. Statistically Tauamalolo has had two quiet weeks in a row. The Cowboys score 36 per cent of their tries in the final 20 minutes of games, and there is arguably no better forward in the competition in the final 20 than Taumalolo.
The History: Played 36; Sharks 22, Cowboys 14. Three of the last four games between these two have been separated by six points or less.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet reports that there have been more individual bets on the Cowboys, but 50 per cent more has been placed on the Sharks in terms of dollars. The Sharks with the points start has been the most popular bet on this game. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin. Assistant Referee: David Munro. Touch Judges: Steve Carrall and Clayton Sharpe. Video Referees: Steve Chiddy and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live, 5.30pm
The Way We See it: Cronulla is one of the league's hottest teams right now but their winning ways could possibly have glossed over some things. Six of their last seven wins have come by less than six points, and just last week they escaped from Auckland after trailing for 70 minutes of the game against an out-of-form Warriors side that has not recovered from the loss of halfback and lifeblood Shaun Johnson. They – just like the Cowboys – are masters of close games, so this one bodes well for a photo finish. North Queensland played well against Parramatta for 20 minutes two weeks ago, 40 minutes v Canberra last week. Maybe it will be 60 minutes this time around? Cowboys by 6.