Schick Hydro Preview: Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v North Queensland Cowboys
And then there were four. The last remaining Sydney team hosts last year’s premiers in the first of two preliminary finals this weekend.
The Sharks enter this one on the back of a much-needed weekend off courtesy of a gritty 16-14 qualifying final win in Canberra a fortnight ago.
Having gone into that game with just one win from their previous six starts (including a loss to Canberra who themselves were on an 11-game winning run going into the finals) few tipped the Sharks to spring an upset, particularly after skipper Paul Gallen was ruled out with a back complaint.
Their situation became even more dire when stand-in skipper Wade Graham was concussed early on but Shane Flanagan’s men managed to eke out a crucial win. That week off allowed Gallen to get his back right and Graham to get in a full week of training after passing a follow-up cognitive test.
It also allowed key prop Sam Tagataese to overcome a shoulder injury; the Samoa international’s absence keenly felt in Cronulla’s late-season slump and this side on paper is a much stronger one than that which edged the Raiders.
For now, Tagataese has been named in jersey 18 with rookie Kurt Capewell holding a bench spot following his strong outing against the Raiders. Gallen’s return at lock pushes Jason Bukuya to the bench and Jesse Sene-Lefao out of the team.
We could never do justice to the heaving, frantic, ebbing, epic 90-minute thriller played out by Cronulla’s opponents North Queensland last week in Townsville over old rivals Brisbane but suffice to say the boys from the Shire will have been pleased to see that one run for 90 minutes in sapping heat and humidity.
Cowboys coach Paul Green and his support staff though are used to managing the demands of heat and travel and the seven days since will hopefully allow him to get his troops back in tip top condition for the trip to Sydney.
The only change for Green is the return of Kane Linnett from injury in the centres, pushing Javid Bowen to the wing and impressive teenager Kalyn Ponga out of the team following a great debut last week in what was his first but certainly not last NRL appearance.
Watch out Sharks: The match-winning moment of magic from incomparable Cowboys maestro Johnathan Thurston will live long in the highlight reels but rather than continuing to wax lyrical about that moment, we’ll acknowledge a performance that made that moment possible.
After a quiet-ish outing against the Storm a week prior, Kiwi wrecking ball Jason Taumalolo exploded against the Broncos. His ferocious charges were the difference between victory and defeat as he relentlessly smashed his 113-kilogram frame into the Brisbane defensive line, savagely bending it backwards to breaking point even late in the game when energy levels were running on empty.
His 265 metres was a comfortable match-high from any forward or back and his 11 tackle busts were easily a match-high as well. His giant steam-piston legs continued to pump after meeting the line as he closed in on 100 metres post-contact. If Taumalolo can even come close to matching that ferocity this weekend the Sharks will have a huge job to earn parity in the middle of the park.
Watch out Cowboys: With key man Gallen out last start, it was left to remaining middle men Andrew Fifita and the unheralded Matt Prior to get the dirty work done, and their response was impressive. Stats machine Fifita turned in big numbers even by his standards – a match-high six offloads, equal match-high five tackle busts, 38 tackles and a whopping 205 running metres in 61 quality minutes. His metre count was topped only by fellow bookend Prior, who turned in what must be the best game of his career. Forced to play all but seven minutes of the contest due to injuries elsewhere in the forwards, Prior racked up 233 metres, two offloads, three tackle busts and broke the line to score a try. With Gallen and Graham back, Cronulla’s middle is suddenly looking imposing.
Key match-up: Chad Townsend v Johnathan Thurston. Not because this is where the game will be won and lost – it’s no slight against Townsend to say Thurston is the superior player – but because how each backs up from their last start will be crucial to how this one plays out. Thurston’s monumental effort in sapping heat and humidity seven days previous while battling a stomach bug must surely have taken something out of the tank. Still, with ‘JT’, you’d be mad to back against him producing something similar all the same. But he’ll need to if the Cowboys are to scrape past the rugged Sharks. For Townsend, he’s had a fortnight to process being benched late in Cronulla’s win over Canberra with the match on the line. He’s had a career-best year and his partnership with James Maloney has been a big reason for Cronulla’s success but they’ll need more out of him than they got last start with a final return of 13 running metres, 108 kick metres, two missed tackles and an error to go with no attacking figures.
The history: Played 40; Sharks 24, Cowboys 16. If you discount the 90s and early 2000s when North Queensland weren't the powerhouse they are today, they have a 15 from 26 winning record against the Sharks from 2004 to now. The last eight meetings are split four apiece. Allianz has not been a happy hunting ground for the northerners, who are on a five-match losing run (against the Sharks, Sea Eagles and Roosters) at the venue having not won there since 2010. They have just six wins from 21 starts there overall. No such worries exist for the hosts, who have won their past four (against the Roosters and Rabbitohs) at Allianz. The only previous meeting between these two teams at Moore Park was won 20-18 by Cronulla in the 2013 finals in what was the controversial ‘seventh-tackle try’ match.
What are the odds: The money early on in the week was split 50/50 but as time has gone on, the Sharks have edged in front according to Sportsbet. Cronulla 1-12 is the most popular winning margin and they also hold 70 per cent of the money at the line where they're receiving the start. Valentine Holmes is the best backed for first try-scorer despite sitting out a training session during the week with illness. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins. Assistant referee: Gerard Sutton. Sideline officials: Brett Suttor and Chris Butler. Review officials: Luke Patten & Ashley Klein. Senior review official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine - live coverage from 7.30pm (AEST). Fox Sports – Live coverage from 7.30pm (AEST).
The way we see it: Excruciatingly tough one to call. Much will depend on how each team responds to the week off and last week's 90-minute heart-stopper respectively. Despite their radically different preparations there's no excuse for each team not to be well prepared though, and both are reasonably close to full strength. In a coin flip, we'll lean towards North Queensland's 'been there, done that' experience in last year's finals to claw them over the line – but only just. Cowboys by one. Possibly in extra time.