The North Queensland Cowboys will host the Cronulla Sutherland Sharks at 1300 Smiles Stadium on Saturday night, as they begin their NRL title defence.

Unlike many squads in the NRL, the Cowboys have a near identical line-up to the one that defeated Brisbane in the 2015 Grand Final, perhaps making them the most likely side to defend their premiership in a number of years.

Cronulla on the other hand will be out to avenge their 39-nil thrashing they received on their last road trip to Townsville, which ended their 2015 season a week in the Semi Finals. The Sharks have settled on Ben Barba at the fullback position, with Jack Bird shifting to the centres allowing coverage for the injured Gerard Beale. The new halves pairing of Chad Townsend and former Rooster James Maloney will get their first proper test, rounding out what is now a very exciting Sharks backline.

LAST TIME OUT

The Cowboys were the favourites to take out the Auckland nines tournament, fielding a very strong side full of first graders. In the end, they somewhat disappointed, showing great early signs, before exiting in the quarter finals courtesy of a loss to the Melbourne Storm. The Townsville side bounced back in the World Club challenge, disposing of the Leeds Rhinos 38-4 to stamp their mark as the best Rugby League team in the world.

Cronulla also had a disappointing nines series, looking good early with two wins on the first day, before allowing Canberra to thrash them in their third match, allowing them to slip out of contention without making it past the group stage.

Their trial matches resulted in two draws against Manly and Wests, with Flanagan using the matches to test a number of combinations. The positive out of the trials was the points that flowed for the Sharks club scoring 24 and 30 respectively in the fixtures.

KEY BATTLES

The halves battle is an exciting affair in this match. The experienced pairing of Michael Morgan and Jonathon Thurston needs no introduction. Both players support each other well and feed the team plenty of opportunities. They face up against a new pairing in James Maloney and Chad Townsend, who are unlikely to be gelling straight away, but have huge potential. Townsend will have to play the organiser which will free up Maloney to be creative and run when the opportunity arises.

The Front row battle is also intriguing, largely on the back of last year’s Final result, in which the Cowboys, Matt Scott in particular, walked straight over the top of Cronulla in the middle. The Sharks will be very keen to muscle up and show the home side their vaunted pack is still to be feared.

PREDICTION

Cronulla look like a very strong side this year, but unfortunately for them, face off against the bets side in the competition at home to start. To make matters worse, it is predicted to be a sticky night, with warm temperatures and high humidity.

Playing in Cronulla’s favour, however, is the Cowboys recent long trip around the world to play in the World Club Challenge. In the past, a number of teams have failed to play their best after taking the long route to England. If the Cowboys give Cronulla a sniff, the visitors certainly have the team to take their chances. It is a tough start to the season for the Sharks though, and the team will still be getting use to playing with each other. It will be a lot closer than last year’s final, but the Cowboys should hold them out.

North Queensland by 2

SQUADS

Cowboys: 1 Lachlan Coote 2 Kyle Feldt 3 Justin O’Neill 4 Kane Linnett 5 Antonio Winterstein 6 Michael Morgan 7 Johnathan Thurston (c) 8 Matthew Scott (c) 9 Jake Granville 10 James Tamou 11 Gavin Cooper 12 Ethan Lowe 13 Jason Taumalolo. Interchange: 14 Rory Kostjasyn 15 John Asiata 16 Scott Bolton 17 Ben Hannant.

Sharks: 1 Ben Barba 2 Sosaia Feki 3 Jack Bird 4 Ricky Leutele 5 Valentine Holmes 6 James Maloney 7 Chad Townsend 8 Andrew Fifita 9 Michael Ennis 10 Sam Tagataese 11 Luke Lewis 12 Wade Graham 13 Paul Gallen (c). Interchange: 14 Chris Heighington 15 Matt Prior 16 David Fifita 17 Jayson Bukuya 18 Gerard Beale 19 Joseph Paulo

Referees: Ben Cummins, Adam Devich