Round 18: Cowboys v Sharks preview
Second coming or false dawn for top four hopefuls
Two of the league's biggest improvers will face off in a precursor to finals football on Friday evening when the North Queensland Cowboys host the Cronulla Sharks in Townsville.
Undergoing a dramatic transformation few, if any, envisioned at the start of the season, the North Queensland Cowboys will be aiming to record five consecutive wins twice in a season for the first time in the club's history.
Sitting in second position on the premiership ladder, post-Origin, for only the second time in history, coach Todd Payten has named a squad boasting extensive cover for the side's contingent of representative stars.
Naming Tom Dearden, set to make his 50th first grade appearance, and Tom Gilbert to back up 48 hours after debuting in the State of Origin decider, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow will come into the starting side in place of Valentine Holmes, while Brendan Elliot will gain a rare start with Murray Taulagi sidelined.
Holding a below average record of 11 wins from 26 meetings against the Sharks in Townsville over the years, the Cowboys will effectively confirm a return to the finals for the first time since 2017 with a win on Friday evening.
Chasing five wins in a row for the first time in four years, the Cronulla Sharks will be aiming to continue a golden run of form in recent years over their weekend opponents.
Recording seven consecutive victories over the Cowboys dating back to 2018, the Sharks have made tremendous strides under rookie coach Craig Fitzgibbon with the side positioned inside the top four, post-Origin, for the first time since Shane Flanagan was deregistered for breaching the conditions of an NRL-imposed suspension.
Riding a wave of confidence after embarrassing the Storm with an emphatic 28-6 victory at home, the Sharks will welcome back Nicho Hynes and Toby Rudolf after the pair were stood down due to testing positive to COVID on the eve of last Thursday's match.
Who to watch: Making a valuable contribution to the side's resurgence from bottom four perennials to premiership dark horses, unheralded forward Griffin Neame has played an unassuming, yet effective, role off the bench this season. Averaging 29 minutes of game time in 14 matches in 2022, the 21-year-old front-rower has made a steady progression through the ranks after shifting across the Tasman in 2018 before earning a place in the NRL squad until the end of next season. Catching the attention of Michael Maguire with a place in the extended New Zealand squad for last month's test against Tonga, look for Neame to put his best foot forward in a bid to represent his homeland in the World Cup at season's end.
Recruited to the club as an experienced campaigner held in rarefied esteem, the Sharks will be looking for Dale Finucane to draw upon his experience as a big game player. Featuring in six grand finals in the space of ten seasons prior to joining the club this season, the 30-year-old forward has averaged just under 100 running metres and 28 tackles in 11 appearances in 2022. Set to face off against Jason Taumalolo in a key duel between two of the premier lock forwards of the past decade, look for Finucane to provide a steadying influence as the Sharks aim to make a statement in Townsville.
The favourite: Despite missing several stars through injury and Origin, the Cowboys are expected to continue their strong home record on Friday evening.