Schick Hydro Preview: Cronulla Sharks v North Queensland Cowboys
Southern Cross Group Stadium
Prior to Round 1 Johnathan Thurston dubbed it the NRL's new rivalry, and while this week may not carry the hype of a Broncos-Cowboys clash the quality should be just as high. The Sunshine State showdown is more about the two clubs' histories and high-level play, while Sharks-versus-Cowboys offers more for those partial to player subplots; featuring:
- Superstar stalwarts of their respective states in Thurston and Paul Gallen
- Talented running halves Michael Morgan and James Maloney
- The battle of beef between Andrew Fifita and Matt Scott
- The opportunist versus the steady head: fullbacks Ben Barba v Lachlan Coote
- Polar opposites, Michael 'The Menace' Ennis v placid surfer boy Jake Granville at dummy-half.
On top of this, Monday is a tale of redemption for the Cowboys.
Eyeing off a dozen consecutive wins before Ennis and the Sharks shocked the eventual premiers 24-18 on their own patch in Round 16 last season, North Queensland will now head south to get one back and end Cronulla's own streak of nine wins.
Sharks mentor Shane Flanagan has named an unchanged team from their thrill-a-minute win over the Bulldogs last Monday, while Cowboys chief Paul Green gets Morgan back from concussion at the expense of last week's two-try hero Ray Thompson who drops out of the side.
Watch out Sharks: The Sharks are a top-four defensive team in the competition, but one area the Cowboys can exploit is their right side. Lately they have leaked points when faced with a backline movement involving the opposing fullback. Manly burned them twice in tries to Tom Trbojevic and Brayden Wiliame, while Sam Kasiano grabbed a rare meat pie with hard running up the middle as Cronulla's defenders were too fixated on the Dogs' left-side shape. Cowboys custodian Lachlan Coote is the best ball-playing fullback league-wide at the moment and loves to join forays to the left, so backline movements in that direction with Coote sweeping out the back should be the visitor's go-to move. Antonio Winterstein should be licking his chops. Expect the Cowboys to pepper Maloney – the worst penalty offender (15) in the competition and second-worst in missed tackles (53) – before setting up a shift to the left.
Watch out Cowboys: Their engine room gives the Cowboys a leg up almost every other week, but it's a different story this time. They are not unfamiliar with the Sharks' large potential for punishment, and will have to be on top of their games against the likes of Gallen, Fifita, Jayson Bukuya and new recruit Joseph Paulo who are ready to rip and tear. The Cowboys rank first and the Sharks fourth in the Telstra Premiership for average run metres per game, but Gallen (averaging over 170 metres per game) sits a close second behind James Graham as the game's most travelled forward. 'Gal' is the one to watch.
Key match-up: Johnathan Thurston/Michael Morgan v James Maloney/Chad Townsend. Both teams are elite in the yardage battle, so there will be scoring opportunities; it is just up to which halves can marshal their troops the better when they present themselves. Morgan may be known for his running game but he is becoming more of a shot caller, meaning the Cowboys – the league's highest-scoring team by a mile – are lethal either side of the ruck. Both fullbacks are elite ball-players for their position and will greatly assist their respective halves.
The history: Played 39; Sharks 23, Cowboys 16. Wins and losses have come in pairs for these clubs over the last six matches. North Queensland claimed wins in the past two – Round 1 this season and semi-final last season – while prior to that the Sharks ended the Cowboys' 11-game win streak and muscled a Round 22 win at the Shire. Before that the premiers took two field goals to win in golden point, and won comfortably in Sydney.
What are the odds: On paper this shapes as the ultimate 50/50 game, and the money is unsurprisingly split right down the centre. Sportsbet has received very little money for either side to run away with the game and win by 13+. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton. Assistant Referee: Adam Gee. Touch Judges: Nick Beashel and Rohan Best. Senior Review Official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7pm.
The way we see it: We're tipping post-Origin scheduling to be the major difference here. Cowboys forwards Matt Scott and James Tamou combined for a stress-free 79 minutes against the Knights, while Andrew Fifita and Paul Gallen had to work their tails off for a collective 127 minutes in a tense and hard-fought last-minute win against the Dogs. The Cowboys' 48-minute playing time and 48-hour rest time advantages will be too much. N.B. we have Michael Ennis on 40/20 watch. The crafty dummy-half may opt to give his forwards a rest with early-tackle-count kicks on a typically slippery home deck. Cowboys to win a high-scoring contest by 8.