Cowboys v Sharks Semi Final preview
Cowboys v Sharks
Seven is a lucky number for many and will be inextricably linked with finals drama between these two teams after Cronulla snuck away with a 20-18 Elimination Final win in 2013.
The irony as North Queensland and Cronulla prepare to meet for the 38th occasion is that with the changes to the rules this season regarding kicks going dead in-goal, the Sharks could again use seven tackles to prematurely end the Cowboys' season.
The Cowboys were in the most gripping of Week One finals encounters until the very last play of the game while the Sharks had to first repel a South Sydney onslaught before they were able to cruise to a 16-point win, just their second win in finals football since 2008.
The Sharks have been victorious in both meetings with the Cowboys this season, fighting back from an 18-0 half-time deficit to win 24-18 in Townsville in Round 16 and then scoring five tries to three in a 30-18 victory at Remondis Stadium in Round 22.
Cowboys coach Paul Green has added Rory Kostjasyn to the 17-man squad that went down to the Broncos 16-12 in Week One, while Michael Ennis' escape from suspension will see the Sharks line up in the same formation for the second week in succession.
The prize for the winner is a Saturday night date with the Storm in Melbourne in a Preliminary Final while the vanquished will be left to rue a good season ultimately unfulfilled.
Watch Out Cowboys: He is a rookie with just the one finals game to his name but there is no question Jack Bird is the most dangerous man in the Sharks line-up with ball in hand. A big body whose seven tackle busts against the Rabbitohs were a game high, Bird broke the deadlock – and the spirit of the defending premiers – with the game's first try and also got through plenty of defensive work. One of the standout candidates for Rookie of the Year, Bird has scored eight tries and laid on seven try assists but his most dangerous asset is a power running game that has yielded one less tackle bust than Jason Taumalolo.
Watch Out Sharks: His return was an unexpected boost for Week One of the Finals Series but Michael Morgan's performance against the Broncos was one of a player who had lost some of his timing in two weeks on the sidelines. He came through the game unscathed and – like his coach Paul Green – will be expecting to have a greater influence back on home turf. Morgan's 10 try assists in 2015 are seven less than last season and his average of 79 running metres is well shy of last year's mark. In two home finals in Townsville Morgan has scored four tries so don't be surprised if the local junior is the man of the moment on Saturday.
Key Match-up: James Tamou v Andrew Fifita. Both lauded and derided for their unconventional approach to front-row play, if either Tamou or Fifita is interviewed after the game it is likely they have led their team to a win. Fifita has had enough drama for five seasons in 2015 and almost didn't take the field against the Rabbitohs last Sunday due to back spasms after serving a six-week suspension. Tamou's start to the year was hindered by off-season neck surgery but ran for 131 metres and made 35 tackles against the Broncos last week. Whether it's a crab-like run from Fifita or Tamou reversing into the defensive line, nothing these two do is endorsed by the Association of Front-Rowers but it just might break the game wide open.
History: Played 37; Cowboys 14, Sharks 23. The strength of the Sharks in the late 1990s made it one-way traffic in this rivalry for the Cowboys who won just one of the first 14 clashes across eight seasons. The ledger has squared up somewhat in recent years but it is the Sharks who come into this clash with the two most recent wins this season with a 24-18 win in Townsville and 30-18 triumph at home. Cronulla also boasts a winning record in Townsville with 11 wins from 20 visits to North Queensland.
Did You Know? Respective captains Johnathan Thurston and Paul Gallen are the only two players remaining from a Round 13 clash between the Cowboys and Sharks in 2005 that has been part of the record books for a decade. On their way to their maiden grand final berth the Cowboys ran rampant at home, scoring 10 tries to three in what remains the Cowboys' fourth-biggest win in their history and is Cronulla's fifth-largest defeat. Four players scored doubles in that game; Paul Bowman, Matt Sing and Justin Smith for North Queensland and Nigel Vagana for the Sharks.
What Are The Odds: Cowboys $1.38, Sharks $3.05. There are more individual bets placed on the Sharks, but the big wagers have been on the Cowboys and Sportsbet is holding 30 per cent more money on the home side. The Sharks are popular at the line where they're receiving the start, but Cowboys winger Antonio Winterstein is the one they want for first try-scorer. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton. Assistant Referee: Gavin Badger. Touch Judges: Steve Carrall and Brett Suttor. Video Referees: Ashley Klein and Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7pm
How We See It: The Sharks have shown they hold no fear of the warmer waters off North Queensland and their disposing of the Rabbitohs was as clinical as it was courageous. The Cowboys have scored 30-plus points in three of their past four home games and with a capacity home crowd behind them will play with plenty of energy and aggression. The Sharks are a dangerous proposition for the Cowboys but the home side should have enough points in them to squeak home. Cowboys by seven points.