Schick Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v Cronulla Sharks
Saturday 7.30pm (AEDT)
Johnathan Thurston coined it the NRL's new rivalry and it's not hard to see why. This matchup has had everything over recent years – a seven-tackle try, a golden point win and an unthinkable comeback to snap an 11-game winning streak – and should reach greater heights as Cronulla compete for a top-four spot.
Two teams that have every chance to be there on that special Sunday in October will start from distinctly different places in Round 1, with the Sharks having to prove themselves after a shakeup in key positions. That said, recent history suggests that whatever the circumstance, Cronulla finds a way to compete against North Queensland.
Watch out Cowboys: Ben Barba, Valentine Holmes, Jack Bird and James Maloney are some of the names the Cowboys need to shut down. An overhaul of the Cronulla spine means things will take time to gel for the visitors, so don't be surprised if teething problems arise on Saturday as they battle with typical Round 1 rust and new combinations. Despite racking up the sixth-most points in the 2015 regular season the Sharks' attack was found wanting at times, notably in the kicking department where hooker Michael Ennis (5.3 kicks per game) had to cover for five-eighth Bird who put boot to ball just 2.4 times per game. But with the arrival of Maloney and Chad Townsend, that will not be the case this year. With thunderstorms forecast for Saturday, the kicking game could prove extra important.
Watch out Sharks: The World Club Challenge game showed the Cowboys are as ready and willing as any team in the league. They can still score on either flank, up the middle and in the air. Whatever string Johnathan Thurston decides to pull is probably the right one, and we expect a direct assault toward Maloney's side. The former Rooster is undoubtedly a talented ball player but his weakness lies in defence, and the stats are damning. Maloney was the only player in the NRL last year to record triple-figures in missed tackles during the regular season; the next worst was Tigers halfback Luke Brooks with 75 (in one less game). Combine JT's trickery and Maloney's poor defensive record with Cronulla's halves' lack of familiarity with coach Shane Flanagan's defensive schemes, and it equals bad news for the visitors.
Key match-up: Jason Taumalolo v Paul Gallen. The two fire starters for both sides need to put in good performances to get their teams rolling forward. These men go about their work very differently, with an interesting sub-plot to this game being how these two in particular adapt to the new interchange rules. Gallen, who has one of the bigger motors in the NRL, will surely not be affected but it may play with the 22-year-old Kiwi who is known for short-term spurts of sheer destruction. While Gallen doesn't need new forms of motivation to give it everything each week, he will no doubt want to outshine the 2015 Lock of the Year.
The history: Played 38; Cowboys 15, Sharks 23. Cronulla claimed both regular season games between these teams in 2015, but the Cowboys rolled them in the semi-finals 39-0. That was an outlier, as recent history has featured consistently close encounters between these two.
What are the odds: Sportsbet is facing a hefty payout if the Sharks can upset the premiers. There's been more money wagered on Cronulla at their juicy price than there has been on the favourites the Cowboys. Gavin Cooper has been backed at decent odds to be first tryscorer along with grand final hero Kyle Feldt. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins. Assistant Referee: Adam Devcich. Sideline Officials: Michael Wise and Belinda Sleeman. Review Officials: Ben Galea and Jason Robinson.
Televised: Fox Sports 1, Live, 7:30pm AEDT.
The way we see it: With thunderstorms looking likely, Saturday is shaping as Townsville's first wet weather game in a long time. On a good track we would expect plenty of points, especially as teams get used to the new interchange rules, but in the wet it's anybody's guess. Cronulla revel in those types of conditions while North Queensland are very unfamiliar with them. However, we simply cannot back against the world champs at home. Cowboys by 6.