Round 1: Cowboys v Sharks preview
Milestones aplenty in far north season opener.
It would be remiss of us not to start by acknowledging the incredible achievement of Johnathan Thurston: the classy Cowboys half joins the elite 300 club when he takes to the Townsville turf on Friday night, and boy what a journey he's had. Several season-ending injuries have stopped him from reaching the milestone sooner - including last season when a bung shoulder in Origin 2 saw him miss the deciding match and the Cowboys' magical run to the 2018 decider.
It's a career that's spanned the best part of 15 years - he burst onto the scene in blue and white in the early 2000's, winning his first premiership with Canterbury in 2004 (fortuitously, some might say, after injury to Steve Price gave him a spot on the interchange); leading the Cowboys around on the big stage just twelve months later in a Grand Final loss to the Wests Tigers... achieving it all with Queensland and Australia along the way to a club premiership with the Cowboys in 2015, kicking an extra time field goal to send the NRL's holy grail to 1300SMILES Stadium for the first time, some 20 years after the club's inception.
The 300th game mark also coincides with another milestone for JT. It's his 271st game in the blue & grey, surpassing club legend Matt Bowen in playing most games for the 2015 premiers.
There is another club involved in this contest - 2016 premiers Cronulla. They've had a few interesting personnel changes in the off-season, having lost Jack Bird and James Maloney, they've managed two quality replacements in Josh Dugan and Matt Moylan. How the pair fit in with the culture and style of the boys from the Shire will unfold over the coming weeks, but with some promising trial form (and even a predictable Dugan injury scare in one of those trials), and Sharks will be backing themselves to stay among the leading pack this season. Speaking of packs - the Sharks' engine room remains a formidable, experienced and strong one, but depth might be a concern going forward.
The first big test for them is a Cowboys side widely tipped to finish top two and picked by many to lift their second title on September 30. With a solid travelling record in 2017 - ten wins from twelve on the road during the regular season - the Sharkies will have no issue battling the oppressive Townsville climate to pick up the W here if they apply themselves.
The Cowboys disposed of Cronulla in the opening week of last year's finals at Allianz Stadium, ending the Sharks' title defence. It was their only win out of the three meetings between the pair last season, with Cronulla victorious in Rounds 11 and 24.
Overall the Sharks have the edge in this contest since 1995, winning 27 of 44 meetings, while they hold a narrow advantage in matches at 1300SMILES as well - 12 wins to the Cowboys' 11.
Who to watch: While all eyes for the home side will be on the great man JT, there's one fair question mark over the Cowboys' backline - the fullback. Regular custodian Lachlan Coote will miss the season opener through injury on Friday, which brings utlity Ben Hampton in as a fill-in. With his opposing number being the electric Valentine Holmes, he has a big test on his hands. Cronulla's halves will be keen to exploit this potential weakness.
It might also pay to keep an eye on the wing on Friday night. Sione Katoa has plenty of wraps already, and ahead of his first grade debut there are many keen to see his speed unleashed. The Cowboys' outside backs are no slouches either and while speed is obviously a massive factor, it'll be interesting to see if Katoa can master the elements a modern winger must conquer - those aerial skills of the man opposite him on Friday in Kyle Feldt.
You can also Lock (see what I did there) in a huge battle between the number 13's. Jason Taumalolo and Paul Gallen are two of the games best metre-eaters. Whoever wins the forward game here goes a long way to cementing two competition points.
My tip: The gut feel here is that the new combinations at Cronulla could take a little while to gel. While Moylan and Dugan find their feet, the class of Johnathan Thurston and the power of an immense Cowboys forward pack should do the job here. Cowboys by 8.
North Queensland Cowboys Form Guide
Yet to play this season
North Queensland Cowboys Upcoming Games
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks Form Guide
Yet to play this season