NRL Predictions: Cronulla vs North Queensland

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The Sharks and Cowboys will battle it out for the first place in the 2016 NRL Grand Final. Will the Sharks make their first decider in 20 years, to put them one game away from a maiden premiership? Or will the Cowboys be the first (legitimate) team since Manly to make consecutive Grand Finals? Rugby league writer Daniel Boss provides his thoughts and prediction for this game below.

Previous Game Review

In the opening round of the finals, Cronulla headed down to Canberra and came away with a hard-fought win, breaking Canberra’s 10-game winning streak in the process. The Sharks did not get off to a good start, as they trailed 12-0 early. However, they were able to reduce the Canberra lead to 6 at halftime, before finishing on top of the Raiders to claim a week off and a preliminary final in Sydney. This win was particularly impressive, as they were able to do it without Paul Gallen and without Wade Graham for the majority of the game. James Maloney and Matt Prior were standouts in that game and will be important for Cronulla in the Grand Final qualifier.

In another classic game between the Cowboys and Broncos, the Cowboys were able to maintain their perfect finals record in Townsville by winning this game in extra time. Johnathan Thurston came up with the match-winning play, adding yet another classic moment in his legendary career. Jason Taumalolo was also very good, particularly in the second half. Justin O’Neill was able to exploit the Broncos’ left side defence, forcing Brisbane to play Alex Glenn at centre, who the Cowboys targeted again, in order to take a lead in the second half. All three players are highly important for the Cowboys, if they are to make their third Grand Final.

Cronulla Sharks vs North Queensland Cowboys Preview

2016 Matches

  • Round 1 – North Queensland Cowboys defeated Cronulla Sharks 20-14, 1300 Smiles Stadium
  • Round 14 – Cronulla Sharks defeated North Queensland Cowboys 13-10, Southern Cross Group Stadium

Previous Match at Allianz Stadium

  • Week 1 Finals, 2013 – Cronulla Sharks defeated North Queensland Cowboys 20-18

Previous Finals Match

  • Week 2 Finals, 2015 – North Queensland Cowboys defeated Cronulla Sharks 39-0, 1300 Smiles Stadium

Team Changes

Cronulla Sharks

  • In: Paul Gallen (lock), Sam Tagataese (extended bench)
  • Out: Jesse Sene-Lefao

North Queensland Cowboys

  • In: Kane Linnett (centres)
  • Out: Kayln Ponga

In their last game, Cronulla made a big change to the composition of their backline in the second half, by moving James Maloney to halfback and Jack Bird to five-eight. This was due to Chad Townsend not having a good game and it also made Cronulla’s attack play more direct, through the strong running games of both Maloney and Bird. As the Sharks carry a back on the bench, this option is available to them and it will be interesting to see if this tactic is employed in this game. The Cowboys welcome back Kane Linnett to their backline, which isn’t a major upgrade, given the strong performance of Ponga in his debut. The Cowboys obviously possess the stronger halves combination with Thurston and Morgan both great players. Their outside backs do have a few mistakes in them which could be costly, as evidenced by Lachlan Coote’s first half last week.

The big match-up in the starting forward packs is the battle of the two big men; Andrew Fifita and Jason Taumalolo. Both are highly capable of providing dominant performances and both sides will be looking at reducing the impact of the other team’s respective ‘big man’. In regards to the other players in the middle, Cronulla’s players are in better form and they welcome back Paul Gallen, which provides a big boost. On the edges, there are four very good players, with two premiership winners in Luke Lewis and Gavin Cooper. Coen Hess has shown in limited games that he could be a very good player in the years to come. I don’t see either side having an advantage in regards to their respective edge forwards. At hooker, Cronulla utilise Michael Ennis for the entire game, while the Cowboys split duties between Jake Granville and Rory Kostjasyn. Ennis is a key part of Cronulla’s attack, while the Cowboys rely more on their halves. Granville’s form this year hasn’t been as good as last year, but if he plays anywhere near his 2015 level of form, then he can cause havoc for the Cronulla defence.

As previously mentioned, Cronulla like to utilise one back on the bench, while the Cowboys carry a backup hooker. The other three places on the bench are taken by forwards that mostly play in the middle. There was one exception to that for Cronulla in their last game, when Kurt Capewell replaced Wade Graham in the second row and played very well. Capewell has retained a place on the bench accordingly. That is if the Sharks go from 1 to 17 when announcing their team. They have named Sam Tagataese on the bench, which would be a big inclusion if he is fit and I think that Capewell would miss out if this happens. The Cowboys bench were good last week and were able to swing the momentum of the game during the latter stages of the first half, after Brisbane were dominant in the opening 20 minutes. The bench players were also good in the second half, as they needed to claw back the halftime deficit and continue to maintain momentum, which also provided enough time to rest Jason Taumalolo, prior to his strong performance at the back end of the game.

Prediction

If this game turns into a high-scoring shootout, then the Cowboys will win as they have the superior attack. However, as the previous two games between these two sides have been quite low scoring, I am expecting this to be the case on Friday night. There is rain expected over the week and perhaps on Friday morning, so the weather will be clear for the game. The more soggy or dewy the conditions are, the more this favours Cronulla. Both sides would have gained confidence from their previous win and as this game is played at Allianz Stadium, I expect the Sharks to have a small advantage in terms of support. This is based on an estimated crowd of around 25,000, with a majority of those supporting Cronulla. If they can get closer to 35,000, then this advantage will be greater.

Both teams also started their last games relatively slowly and both overcame two possession deficits to claim victory. While not necessarily essential (unlike the second preliminary final), a stronger start to this game will be highly important. This is particularly the case for Cronulla, as the Cowboys will have the confidence from last year’s premiership to be able to overcome a deficit, regardless of the time remaining in the game (sorry Broncos fans). I’m expecting this game to be the closer of the two preliminary finals and the more difficult game to provide a prediction. I just think the finals experience of the Cowboys in big games and more importantly, being successful in big games, will get them over the line in this one. But only just though.

Predicted Score: Cowboys 16 Cronulla 14

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