The NSW Blues have been named for the first game of the 2017 #Origin series.
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Last two premiers face off in pre-Origin blockbuster
As we enter the final weekend before the Origin period wreaks havoc on the premiership season, both sides will be keen to get a leg-up on the table before the potential of losing players to rep duty becomes a reality. Both sides come into this one as last-start winners - the Cowboys were near-perfect for much of their win over a surprisingly poor Canterbury, while the Sharks were said to be lucky to get home against a punching-above-their-weight Dragons.
While the 'near enough' has been good enough for the Sharks in getting wins on the board so far this year, that theory will only go so far throughout the season and the Cowboys will no doubt test that on Thursday night. Cronulla's completion rate against St George Illawarra last week was of significant concern - their handling and discipline will both need to improve against a team like the Cowboys, who will take every advantage that presents itself.
Much of the Cowboys' likelihood of a win is said to rest on the potential return of Johnathan Thurston, but the performance of the Cowboys' remaining spine put those concerns aside last week and may well do the same this week.
The Cowboys will be keen to exact revenge on Cronulla for knocking them out of last year's title race and preventing them claiming back-to-back titles. It's the 42nd meeting between the two sides since 1995, Cronulla winners on 25 occasions to the Cowboys' 16. The record for North Queensland at the Woolooware venue isn't great either, with just 5 victories from 17 visits - four of them in consecutive seasons between 2011 and 2014. The last eight clashes between the pair at all venues are split at 4-4.
Who to watch: All eyes will be on the man most expect to be wearing a different kind of sky-blue jersey in a fortnight's time - James Maloney. He and Townsend controlling the Sharks backline from the middle on the back of a quality forward pack has been what's got the premiers home in recent games, and he'll no doubt want to put in a big performance to cement his NSW jumper this week.
Michael Morgan will no doubt be lining up against Maloney in a maroon jersey on May 31 if the chips fall that way - so what better way to go toe-to-toe with him in a club match just two weeks prior? Morgan was instrumental in the Cowboys' emphatic win over Canterbury last week, in a game the side was tipped to struggle in with the omission of Thurston and a poor away record. Together with hooker Jake Granville and fullback Lachlan Coote, the Cowboys spine was simply brilliant. A similar performance this week will be good news for fans of the Townsville club - even moreso if Thurston can make a surprise early return.
My tip: Regardless of the Thurston factor, the Cowboys looked like a cohesive powerful unit last week, while Cronulla struggled against a side they arguably should have been able to account for easily. On that basis, it's the Cowboys by 6 for mine.
1. Valentine Holmes 2. Sosaia Feki 3. Jack Bird 4. Ricky Leutele 5. Gerard Beale 6. James Maloney 7. Chad Townsend 8. Andrew Fifita 9. Jayden Brailey 10. Chris Heighington 11. Luke Lewis 12. Wade Graham 13. Paul Gallen 15. Jayson Bukuya 16. Jeremy Latimore 17. Sam Tagataese 18. Joseph Paulo
1. Lachlan Coote 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Justin O'Neill 4. Kane Linnett 5. Antonio Winterstein 6. Michael Morgan 7. Ray Thompson 8. John Asiata 9. Jake Granville 10. Scott Bolton 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Ethan Lowe 13. Jason Taumalolo 14. Ben Hampton 15. Coen Hess 16. Shaun Fensom 17. Ben Spina