Cronulla Sharks v North Queensland Cowboys - Preliminary Final @ Allianz Stadium
The Sharks Grand Final dream goes on the line as they take on the reigning champions North Queensland Cowboys in a blockbuster Preliminary Final at Allianz Stadium on Friday Night. The Sharks are well rested having been kicking up their heels since a magnificent come from behind16-14 victory in Canberra in Week 1 of the finals secured them a priceless week off. It's a different story for the Cowboys who have had to make their way into the Preliminary final through a much tougher path after being forced into extra time in a dramatic 26-20 win over Brisbane last week in Townsville. The sides met twice in the regular season sharing a win each. In Round 1 the Cowboys won 20-14 in Townsville despite having to withstand a late Sharks fightback. While in Round 14 the Sharks clung on to win a bruising encounter 13-10 at Shark Park.
The week off gave Cronulla's inspirational captain Paul Gallen the chance to get himself fit and back into the starting side for tonight's match. Wade Graham started in Canberra but only lasted 10 minutes due to concussion and is also fit to play. Sam Tagetaese has overcome a shoulder injury and has been named in jersey number 18 with Luke Capewell a chance to make way for Tagataese from the bench. The Sharks had been in poor form before their victory in Canberra winning just 1 of their 6 last regular season matches. However in the absence of Paul Gallen it was Matt Prior and Andrew Fifita that had monster games as the Sharks got back to winning ways in week 1 of the finals. Prior had a career best game running over 230 metres and scoring a try in a dominant display in the middle of the field. Andrew Fifita responded to his off-field controversies with a game changing 6 offloads as he ran for over 200 metres showing just what he is capable of when he is switched on. All eyes will be on Chad Townsend who was hooked by Coach Shane Flanagan after a poor hour of football in Canberra. Both Paul Green and Johnathan Thurston have already taken pointed shots at Townsend in the hope that it will further play with his mind in the lead up to kickoff.
Paul Green makes only one change to his side with Kane Linnett returning in the centres forcing Javen Bowen back to the wing. Boom rookie Kalyn Ponga is the unlucky player to miss out despite have a great debut against the Broncos. With the Cowboys struggling for long periods of last week's game, it was up to one man wrecking ball Jason Taumalolo to turn the tide with a powerhouse display. His 265 metres was a devastating display with the sheer force of his runs attracting several defenders and winning quick play the balls. Coen Hess was also extremely impressive filling in for Ethan Lowe providing a genuine running threat on the edges and hitting hard in defence. Despite not having his best match, Johnathan Thurston proved the match winner with a wonderful show and go on Sam Thaiday setting up Michael Morgan for the decisive try in extra time. Lachlan Coote had a rare off-night at the back fumbling a couple of crucial kicks.The Sharks will be sure to test him out early here after a hesitant display last week. If the Cowboys can win again tonight they will be just one game away from becoming the first side to go back-to-back over 20 years in the NRL since the Broncos did it way back in 1992 and 1993.
Verdict - Cowboys 26 Sharks 20
I don't love the Cowboys here however I picked them to make the Grand Final in the pre-season so will stick with them against Cronulla tonight. I am worried by the fact they have had 2 bruising encounters, and with all the travel are arriving here tonight a side that is clinging on, while the Sharks have had 13 days off. That should be a real advantage for the Sharks. I'll base my prediction of a Cowboys win on the fact that if both sides play close to their best, I think North Queensland are a more clinical and proven outfit in the clutch. They have been there in the clutch moments and big games and have shown they know how to get the job done or pull a game out of the fire late. That has to be the question mark over Cronulla - can they keep their calm if the game is tense heading into the final 10 or 15 minutes. Chad Townsend is a man under pressure heading into this game and I expect plenty of sledging to come his way. If he is off his game again, I think it gives the Cows an advantage they might just take. I expect this game to be a bottler with some open and attacking football from both sides to match the physicality up front. Cowboys by 6.