Cronulla remain on track for the finals but another thumping by Penrith has provoked serious doubts about whether they can compete if they get there.
The eighth-placed Sharks are four points clear of Wests Tigers, St George Illawarra, Manly and the Warriors but a couple more losses and the pressure could increase tenfold in the last few rounds.
It was against the Cowboys way back in round four that Cronulla opened their account. North Queensland's season nosedived dramatically from that point but interim coach Josh Hannay has at least got his scrappy side playing with some heart as they tested likely finalists South Sydney and Newcastle over the past fortnight.
Match: Sharks v Cowboys
Round 16 -
Venue: Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, Sydney
Sharks: Shaun Johnson (groin) is replaced by rookie halfback Braydon Trindall, while Andrew Fifita returns from a badly broken finger on the bench. Connor Tracey replaces Matt Moylan at five-eighth.
Briton Nikora returns in the back row pushing Siosifa Talakai to the interchange. Scott Sorensen starts at lock with Toby Rudolf coming off the interchange.
Jack Williams and Bryson Goodwin dropped off the extended bench an hour before kick-off after Moylan and Teig Wilton were trimmed from the reserves on Friday.
Cowboys: Murray Taulagi was ruled out on Friday with a knee injury and is replaced by Connelly Lemuelu in the centres.
Valentine Holmes returns from an ankle injury on the wing with Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Tom Opacic out. Daejarn Asi returns at five-eighth in place of Ben Hampton.
Francis Molo starts at prop with Josh McGuire moving to lock for the injured Jason Taumalolo (calf) and Tim Gilbert added to the pine.
Peta Hola was cut from the squad 24 hours before kick-off and Shane Wright and Jake Clifford were omitted on game day.
The Cowboys have not won at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium since 2003.
Fullback for Sharks is number 1 William KennedyFullback for Cowboys is number 1 Scott Drinkwater
Winger for Sharks is number 2 Sione KatoaWinger for Cowboys is number 2 Kyle Feldt
Centre for Sharks is number 3 Josh DuganCentre for Cowboys is number 3 Justin O'Neill
Centre for Sharks is number 4 Jesse RamienCentre for Cowboys is number 20 Connelly Lemuelu
Winger for Sharks is number 5 Ronaldo MulitaloWinger for Cowboys is number 5 Valentine Holmes
Five-Eighth for Sharks is number 6 Connor TraceyFive-Eighth for Cowboys is number 6 Daejarn Asi
Halfback for Sharks is number 23 Braydon TrindallHalfback for Cowboys is number 7 Michael Morgan
Prop for Sharks is number 8 Braden Hamlin-UeleProp for Cowboys is number 8 Francis Molo
Hooker for Sharks is number 9 Blayke BraileyHooker for Cowboys is number 9 Reuben Cotter
Prop for Sharks is number 10 Aaron WoodsProp for Cowboys is number 10 Jordan McLean
2nd Row for Sharks is number 11 Briton Nikora2nd Row for Cowboys is number 11 Mitchell Dunn
2nd Row for Sharks is number 12 Wade Graham2nd Row for Cowboys is number 12 Coen Hess
Lock for Sharks is number 15 Scott SorensenLock for Cowboys is number 13 Josh McGuire
Interchange for Sharks is number 13 Toby RudolfInterchange for Cowboys is number 14 Jake Granville
Interchange for Sharks is number 14 Siosifa TalakaiInterchange for Cowboys is number 15 John Asiata
Interchange for Sharks is number 17 Royce HuntInterchange for Cowboys is number 16 Tom Gilbert
Interchange for Sharks is number 21 Andrew FifitaInterchange for Cowboys is number 17 Corey Jensen
- Referee: Chris Sutton
- Touch Judge: Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski
- Touch Judge: Drew Oultram
- Video Referee: Bryan Norrie
- Senior Review Official: Henry Perenara
Braydon Trindall v Michael Morgan. Trindall will be keen to show he can cut it in the NRL after an impressive debut last month in the win over Brisbane and then last week's loss to Penrith.
Opposing halfback Morgan was brilliant with two tries against the Rabbitohs in round 14 but he couldn't help the Cowboys score a point against the Knights. He'll be determined to rectify that.
There's no questioning Cronulla's attacking firepower with an average of 24.9 points per game – but they have glaring defensive issues. The Sharks have missed the most tackles (551), though North Queensland aren't without their own frailties, ranking sixth (439).