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Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks v North Queensland Cowboys Saturday 7:50pm at PointsBet Stadium, Woolooware

Surprise premiership dark horses face off

The two biggest surprise packets of the season face off on Saturday night and after 80 minutes, one will only be a game away from a preliminary final. In reality though, Cronulla was always expected to be a finals side, and potential top-four bolter, after shrewd off-season moves - headlined by Craig Fitzgibbon's appointment as coach.  Then of course there is utility-turned-halfback Nicho Hynes, a Dally M favourite who has, along with the rejuvenated Matt Moylan, helped lead the Sharks to second spot on the ladder.

Cronulla has been in fine form in the second half of the season, boasting an 11-1 record while its defence in particular has been the cornerstone of the club's success. The Sharks have become the first side since the Storm of 2008 to enter the finals having averaged under 12 points per game conceded in the second half of the season.  As much as Cronulla has been criticized for its soft draw heading into the finals, Fitzgibbon's men can only play what is in front of them and they have put away the lesser sides with relative ease. It has earned the Sharks a home final and given their imposing record at PointsBet Stadium (10-2), it would be hard to bet against Cronulla on Saturday. Last week's 38-16 win over Newcastle's was Cronulla's sixth in a row, the first team it had achieved such a feat since 2018. 

In team news, centre Siosifa Talakai has been named to play at this stage but could be in doubt after suffering an ankle injury against the Knights.  Fortunately for the Sharks they won't be sweating on Dale Finucane (ribs), Will Kennedy (ankle), Toby Rudolf (knee) and Connor Tracey (concussion) - all four will be fit to play. It sees Lachie Miller drop to 18th man and Matt Ikuvalu and Aiden Tolman join the reserves while Cameron McInnes and Braden Hamlin-Uele vacate the starting team for the bench.

As for the Cowboys, they did what they needed to last week, easily taking care of the undermanned Panthers 38-8 in a fitting farewell to the Townsville locals - at least for the time being.  It is always a testing trip up north for any visitors and North Queensland will host another game at Queensland Country Bank Stadium, regardless of whether it wins on Saturday or not. Home ground advantage though will be particularly key for Cronulla this time around and the only way to try combat that is for the visitors to get on the board early. After all, Cronulla has lost all four games this season when trailing at halftime and have not done so coincidentally since a game with North Queensland back in Round 19, 2019.  That will be challenging though given the Sharks are great starters, having scored the first try in 10 of their past 11 games. 

Like Cronulla, North Queensland made a few key changes in the off-season, namely recruiting premiership-winning halfback Chad Townsend. The move was much-maligned given how much it cost but the former Shark has provided the youthful and dynamic Cowboys with composure and control in attack.  In team news, Coen Hess is back from suspension and replaces Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, who drops out of the team. With exciting edge backrowers, a fearsome front row and crafty finishers out wide, North Queensland has an all-round team capable of competing for the title.

The winner of Saturday's match will book their spot in the preliminary finals while the loser will host the victor of the game between the Roosters and Rabbitohs.

Last meeting: Round 18 2022 - Cowboys 12 Sharks 26

Who to watch: Cronulla has missed a bit of fire and intensity up front in recent weeks and will only need it even more as the finals begin. Fortunately, the return of Toby Rudolf (knee) could be exactly what the Sharks need. The 26-year-old is one of the best personalities in the game but matches his off-field contributions with those on it, averaging 112 run metres this season to go with 20 tackle busts. Rudolf may not be at full health though, telling AAP earlier in the week that it is "not a full normal knee" but that his whole body is a bit knocked up, so it won't be something he won't be able to push through.

As for the Cowboys, hooker Reece Robson has been one of their biggest success stories this year and shapes as a finals X-factor ahead of September. Robson's running game is electric and the 24-year-old has quickly learned how to pick his time to unleash it. Against a Cronulla side that is resolute defending its line, North Queensland may need something special and Robson is it. 

The favourite: The Sharks are slight favourites with the bookies for this one.

My tip: Honestly, there is not much outside of home ground advantage separating the two sides and in the end that may just be enough for Cronulla to squeak home and book a spot in the preliminary finals. Sharks by 2.

1. Will Kennedy 2. Connor Tracey 3. Jesse Ramien 4. Siosifa Talakai 5. Ronaldo Mulitalo 6. Matt Moylan 7. Nicho Hynes 8. Toby Rudolf 9. Blayke Brailey 10. Royce Hunt 11. Briton Nikora 12. Wade Graham 13. Dale Finucane 14. Teig Wilton 15. Cameron McInnes 16. Braden Hamlin-Uele 17. Andrew Fifita 18. Lachlan Miller

1. Scott Drinkwater 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Valentine Holmes 4. Peta Hiku 5. Murray Taulagi 6. Tom Dearden 7. Chad Townsend 8. Jordan McLean 9. Reece Robson 10. Reuben Cotter 15. Tom Gilbert 12. Jeremiah Nanai 13. Jason Taumalolo 11. Luciano Leilua 14. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow 16. Coen Hess 17. Griffin Neame 18. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown

Referees: Adam Gee; Sideline Officials: Chris Sutton, Jon Stone; Video Referees: Gerard Sutton;

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