After cruising through the first 13 rounds, sitting on the cusp of the top four and looking to make a push towards the finals in the run home, the Sharks have since hit a road block, five losses in succession, four of those narrow defeats at that, making this week’s clash against the Cowboys a crucial one tomorrow night.
Now in 11th position but just two points outside the top eight, coach John Morris realises the importance of Thursday night’s game, with nothing short of a win acceptable to him or his Sharks team.
“We’ve been backed into a corner and now we’ve got to see some fight,” Morris said. “We’ve been questioned and fair enough, on the back of five losses that will come, but we’ve got to see a bounce back factor and the 17 blokes who take to the field tomorrow will be out there to compete on every play.”
While offering no excuses, four of the five losses have come away from home, three on traditionally tough road trips to Canberra, Melbourne and New Zealand, but where and when the losses have come makes no real difference, with Morris needing to see a determined side take to the field on Thursday night.
“It’s backs to the wall, I want a reaction, I want to see the boys play with some spirit and to do what it takes to get that win,” Morris added.
“For large parts of the games there have been some really good patches. Four out of five games we’ve lost by two points or less. They’ve been trying really hard, we’ve been in the battle, we just haven’t got the job done.”
Standing in the Sharks way however will be a North Queensland side equally desperate for a victory that will ignite their finals charge.
A win over the Roosters a fortnight ago, followed by a loss to the Rabbitohs where they led until the dying moments, has Morris aware of the challenge facing his side.
“They’re a really good team who have found some form. Their last two weeks have been impressive. They knocked the Roosters off, which is a fair scalp then South Sydney they led with five minutes to go,” he said.
“They’ve got a very experienced pack of forwards and no doubt it will be won in the middle.”
In the ‘middle’ as Morris refers, the Sharks will be missing Andrew Fifita due to suspension, but welcome youngster Billy Magoulias into the team for what will be his NRL debut.
A local junior, Magoulias has patiently waited in the wings, travelling to Melbourne and Wellington the last two weeks as 18th man, with the young lock to get his chance at PointsBet tomorrow.
It will however be a baptism of fire, with the North Queensland pack containing international and Origin players such as Jordan McLean, Jason Taumalolo, Matt Scott and Gavin Cooper.
Giving the Sharks an extra shot of confidence will be their recent record against the Cowboys, having won six of the past eight including the past two matches.
In their most recent clash the Sharks won in round three in Townsville by 42-16, for their biggest winning margin of 2019.
In that victory Josh Morris and Chad Townsend both scored doubles, with Shaun Johnson perfect with the boot, kicking seven goals from seven attempts.
Should they hope to come out on top the Sharks will need to do a better job of controlling field position, with poor ball control contributing them having made the most tackles of any team in the NRL inside their own 20 metre zone.
Just last week alone the Warriors had more than 40 tackles inside the Sharks 20, as compared to less than five for the Cronulla side.
For the Sharks, in addition to the inclusion of Magoulias in the 17, Matt Moylan has been ruled out with a hamstring issue, with Josh Dugan to take his place at fullback.
Josh Morris returns in the centres, while Ronaldo Mulitalo has retained his place on the win after a solid outing in Wellington last week.
Also taking place as a lead in to the Sharks v Cowboys NRL clash, some Sharks of the future will be on display when two local junior league under 9’s matches take place as the curtain-raiser at PointsBet Stadium.
Playing across the stadium from east to west and with the games running concurrently, will be the Aquinas and St Joseph’s 9 Gold and the St John Bosco v De la Salle 9 Silver competition games as the youngsters get to experience the big stage.
The Junior League fixtures will get underway at 5.35pm, while the Sharks v Cowboys clash is scheduled to start at 7.50pm.
Match: Sharks v Cowboys
Round 19 -
Venue: PointsBet Stadium, Sydney