With the Sharks fielding a near full strength line-up this week, we look at three Key Match-ups across the park that are set to sway the result come full-time on Saturday night.
THE FULLBACKS | Ben Barba ($178,000*) v Lachlan Coote ($375,000)
Fullback Ben Barba returns to his familiar number one jersey, in a move no doubt set to excite Sharks – and rugby league fans – alike.
Used as the side’s ‘X-factor’ from the interchange for large parts of the 2015 season, Ben Barba will this week run out onto 1300 Smiles stadium, returning to his familiar fullback role.
Barba himself is hopeful of finding his best form, with the fullback set to prove a handful for the Cowboys defence, as he did on occasions last season.
Be it in his support play, probing second man runs, or by taking matters into his own hands, Barba’s work in attack will no doubt set the tone for his efforts done without the ball in hand.
His opposite number though, the Cowboys’ Lachlan Coote, is set to prove a tough task for the Sharks to manage – no doubt marked as ‘one to watch’ by the Cronulla defence.
Coote was an integral part of his side’s premiership run last season, and having returned from a knee injury, quickly became one of the competition’s most consistent number ones.
Fast fact: Ben Barba has scored six tries in his eleven career matches against the Cowboys.
THE HALFBACKS | Chad Townsend ($347,000) v Johnathan Thurston ($528,000)
While Coote may be one man the Sharks keep their eyes on, it goes without saying that four-time Dally M Medal winner Johnathan Thurston will be the focal point in the hosts attack.
‘JT’ missed the Sharks regular season match in Townsville when the sides met in Round 16, before leading his side to a maiden premiership in October. Rounding out the season with 33 try assists, many a side went about attempting to shut down Thurston in 2015 – but failed.
Thurston is set to square off with returning Sharks half Chad Townsend. Back in the Sharks fold after two years in Auckland.
Townsend will face no tougher personal assessment than playing Thurston away from Shark Park – but the matured half will be out to show the skills he learned alongside Kiwi sensation Shaun Johnson at the Warriors.
Fast fact: Townsend is yet to face the Cowboys wearing Sharks colours.
THE BACK-ROWERS | Luke Lewis ($393,000) v Gavin Cooper ($435,000)
Luke Lewis is one man set to reap the rewards of Townsend’s return – partnering the half on the right edge, Lewis will ask questions of Thurston in defence – with the back-rower looking to pick up his try-scoring form where he left it in 2015.
Watch for Lewis to look to shut down Thurston in attack, while also chiming in with handy touches of the ball.
Alike the Townsend/Lewis combination, watch for Thurston to feed handy ball to his outside man in Gavin Cooper – a strong running back-rower who proved a key cog in the Cowboys’ premiership side last season.
Fast fact: Lewis and Cooper crossed for 11 tries each in 2015.
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