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It will be loud and hostile, with Cowboys fans celebrating a significant milestone for one of their heroes, while at the same time screaming and cheering for a season-opening victory against a club they have built up a fierce rivalry with over the past few years.

It will be intimidating and exciting at the same time, with Sharks coach Shane Flanagan preferring to believe it will be the later when his team takes to the field at 1300 SMILES Stadium on Friday night.

The round one clash, on a night where favourite son Johnathan Thurston plays his 300th NRL game, is set to be a blockbuster, played in an atmosphere the Sharks plan to be ready for.

 “We’re in a good position, we’ve trained well, everyone is fit and healthy and excited about going up there. I’m excited about round one and excited about the season,” Flanagan said.

“We haven’t spoken much about JT’s 300th but I’m sure the Cowboys are going to do their best to win for him.

“It’s a real challenge for us and a really good way to start our season. We’ll see where we’re at, going up there, big occasion, round one.

As with all teams about to contest their first official games of the 2018 season, combinations will be tested as new players adapt to the playing styles of their new clubs.

The Sharks will be no different, Matt Moylan slotting into the five eighth role, Josh Dugan at right centre, debutant Sione Katoa on the wing, and while they have trained together all summer, gone through the hours and hours of ball work, the real test will be under the pressure of the opening match, especially one as intense as Friday night’s encounter in Townsville is likely to be.

“What I do know is I’ve got a lot of senior players who have played in big games. Matty’s played in big games, for his country, he’s played Origin. They’re the type of player I want for this big occasion, round one, JT’s 300th,” Flanagan said.

“But in game situations, the pressure of quality opposition against them, that’s when you’re put to the test, how you communicate and how those combinations work. That takes time.

“Playing together, getting a bit of history together under those certain circumstances is something that all teams need. It will evolve, it will evolve as we play more football together,” the coach added.

While Sharks fans will be looking forward to seeing how Moylan and Dugan slot into the Sharks line up, equally intriguing will be the debut of young winger Katoa.

The leading try scorer in the Holden Cup in 2017, Katoa is light on his feet, possessing impressive speed and agility, while playing outside Dugan is likely to get his share of opportunities on the right wing.

“He’s trained really well in the off-season, he played well in the trials, he’s deserves his spot. He’s going to score a lot of tries in the NRL in the next couple of years,” Flanagan said of Katoa.

Joining the newcomers will be the usual cast of experienced hard heads, premiership winning players including the likes of Paul Gallen, Wade Graham, Andrew Fifita, Luke Lewis, Matt Prior and Chad Townsend.

Throw in Jayden Brailey in his second NRL season, Valentine Holmes who continues to develop at the back, the Ricky Leutele, Sosaia Feki combo down the Sharks left and it would appear Flanagan will trot out a well-balanced line up to start the 2018 season.

Their opponents however will be equally confident of success and of notching a first-up win, with Thurston surrounded by internationals and Origin players such as Michael Morgan, Matt Scott, Jordan McLean, Gavin Cooper and Jason Taumalolo in what reads as a formidable Cowboys line-up.

Of the 44 matches contested between the two teams, the Sharks hold a 27-17 win advantage, while surprisingly the visitors also enjoy a 12 wins to 10 edge in matches played in Townsville.

In the last five match-ups the Sharks have won four, their only loss coming in the qualifying final last year.

The lead referee for the match will be Gerard Sutton, with the assistant official Chris Butler.

Kick-off is at 7.05pm (local time – 8.05pm Sydney).

NRL TEAM LISTs – Round 1

(*Note – The final 17-man team to be confirmed one hour before kick-off)

1 Valentine Holmes, 2 Sosaia Feki, 3 Josh Dugan, 4 Ricky Leutele, 5 Sione Katoa, 6 Matt Moylan, 7 Chad Townsend, 8 Andrew Fifita, 9 Jayden Brailey, 10 Matthew Prior, 11 Luke Lewis, 12 Wade Graham, 13 Paul Gallen (c). Interchange: 14 Jayson Bukuya, 15 James Segeyaro, 16 Avagalu Seumanufagai, 17 Joseph Paulo. Reserves: 18 Kurt Capewell, 19 Kurt Dillon
1 Ben Hampton, 2 Kyle Feldt, 3 Justin O'Neill, 4 Javid Bowen, 5 Antonio Winterstein, 6 Michael Morgan, 7 Johnathan Thurston (c), 8 Matthew Scott (c), 9 Jake Granville, 10 Jordan McLean, 11 Gavin Cooper, 12 Ethan Lowe, 13 Jason Taumalolo. Interchange: 14 Te Maire Martin, 15 Coen Hess, 16 Scott Bolton, 17 John Asiata. Reserves: 18 Corey Jensen, 19 Kyle Laybutt, 20 Francis Molo, 21 Enari Tuala

Tale of the Tape
Head-to-head: Played 44, Sharks 27 wins, Cowboys 17 wins.
At 1300 SMILES Stadium: Played 22, Sharks 12 wins, Cowboys 10 wins

Last five games:
2017 qualifying final; North Queensland Cowboys def. Cronulla Sharks 15-14.
Round 24, 2017; Cronulla Sharks def. North Queensland Cowboys 26-16.
Round 11, 2017; Cronulla Sharks def. North Queensland Cowboys 18-14.
2016 preliminary final; Cronulla Sharks def. North Queensland Cowboys 32-20.
Round 14, 2016; Cronulla Sharks def. North Queensland Cowboys 13-10.

2017 points per game: Cowboys 19.3; Sharks 19.6.
2017 points conceded per game: Cowboys 18.3; Sharks 16.8.

  • Ten of the past 12 matches between the two teams decided by 12 points or less
  • Sharks have won six of the past nine matches against the Cowboys
  • These teams played in the opening round of the 2016 season, the Cowboys winning 20-14 n Townsville.
  • Cronulla has lost its past four, and seven of its past eight opening games
  • Cronulla won 10 of 12 away matches last season
  • Cronulla conceded the second least points, tries and metres in 2017
  • Jayson Bukuya will play his 150th NRL match, after debuting for Cronulla in 2008 against Canterbury. He did not play another NRL match until 2011.
  • Luke Lewis will play his 100th match for Cronulla, after joining the club in 2013.
  • Johnathan Thurston plays his 300th NRL match. He will also become the most capped player for the Cowboys, passing Matt Bowen’s record of 270 games.