The Cronulla Sharks will be searching for their 10th straight win when they host defending premiers the North Queensland Cowboys on Monday night at Southern Cross Group stadium.
The home side has named the same team as the one that claimed a last gasp win over the Bulldogs in round 13, and will be looking to maintain their perfect record at home in 2016.
The Cowboys have made just one change for the trip to Cronulla, with Michael Morgan returning from concussion to replace Ray Thompson.
It’s an injustice that first versus third should be played on a Monday night ahead of other more notable prime time games this weekend.
LAST TIME OUT
The Cowboys hosted the Sharks in the opening round of the 2016 competition, and claimed a 20-14 victory on that occasion with Ethan Lowe scoring in the 74th minute to give the Premiers a winning start to their title defence.
The two sides last met at Shark Park in round 22 of 2015, where the Cronulla side claimed the points courtesy of a 30-18 victory.
Cronulla have won 20 games out of 35 meetings between the two sides.
The Sharks currently sit atop the NRL ladder, having won their last nine games straight, setting the benchmark for the competition. The team should be on a high following their round 13 last gasp win over the Canterbury Bulldogs, with the Sharks not leading the game until the 79th minute of the contest.
North Queensland aren’t far behind in third, and come in to the clash with Cronulla buoyed by a big win over cellar dwellers Newcastle, who they demolished 46-16.
James Maloney vs Michael Morgan
Origin players for the various states, these two are key players for their respective sides. Morgan showed his nerves of steel by setting up Kyle Feldt’s match winner in the Grand Final last year, while Maloney showed his cool under pressure as he kicked a sideline conversion for Cronulla to win over the Bulldogs in the last round.
Maloney has ignited the Sharks attack since joining the club this season, building a strong connection with key figures in the backline. He will need to continue to organise the troops well if Cronulla are to climb over the mercurial challenge that is the Cowboys.
Morgan will be one figure the Sharks will need to stop. He is done a wonderful job in recent times at taking the pressure off Thurston and allowing the Cowboys another dimension in attack. His ability in both defence and attack is highlighted through his season statistics, having scored seven tries, assisted 10 others, while making 179 tackles and missing just 18 in defence. This is opposed to Maloney’s 53 missed tackles in defence, showing the well-rounded nature of Morgan’s skills.
Sam Tagatese vs James Tamou
Tagatese had a poor game against the Bulldogs in round 13, with a couple of costly mistakes putting Cronulla under pressure. Facing off against Origin forward James Tamou, Tagatese will need to make big improvements, and coach Shane Flanagan would be talking to the forward about lifting for the occasion.
The Cronulla prop has made eight more errors in 2016 than his Cowboys counterpart while carting the ball 75 times less than Tamou, who has earned more playing minutes as a result. On stats, it seems to be a complete mismatch between the two, although Tagatese does have two line breaks to his name, showing he is capable of breaking the defence and creating opportunities. He will be looking for consistency, and what better chance of showing your worth is there, than taking on a current Origin forward?
Cronulla have a pretty good record against the Cowboys, and have an unblemished home record this season. While they lost to the Cowboys in the opening round, their combinations are far more developed now, and they look to be a far better team as a result.
The North Queensland side are third for a reason, with good strike weaponry across the park. While they have improved recently in winning games played in Sydney, they do still struggle away from home, winning just two from six outside of Townsville.
Cronulla looked flat against the Bulldogs, but would have had a huge lift with the last gasp win and should be primed to prove their worth against a fellow top four side, the only team in the top eight they are yet to taste victory against (excluding Parramatta, who are set to drop out of the eight). They should have the ability at home to dispose of Thurston’s men, albeit in a tight affair.
Sharks by 4
Sharks: 1 Ben Barba 2 Sosaia Feki 3 Jack Bird 4 Gerard Beale 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. Interchange: 14 Ricky Leutele 15 Chris Heighington 16 Jayson Bukuya 17 Joseph Paulo
Cowboys: 1 Lachlan Coote 2 Kyle Feldt 3 Justin O’Neill 4 Kane Linnett 5 Antonio Winterstein 6 Michael Morgan 7 Johnathan Thurston 8 Matt Scott 9 Jake Granville 10 James Tamou 11 Gavin Cooper 12 Ethan Lowe 13 Jason Taumalolo. Interchange: 14 Rory Kostjasyn 15 Atalani Asiata 16 Scott Bolton 17 Ben Hannant