Monday night epic not a grand final precursor
IN HINDSIGHT, Channel 9's NRL match-selection panel members must be kicking themselves that they did not show a little more faith in the resurgent Sharks back in November last year.
Tonight's Sharks-Cowboys clash is without doubt the match of the round, yet is hidden away in the unpopular Monday night timeslot. And that is because the head honchos at Nine did not regard it - at the very least - among the top two games of the weekend.
As chief broadcaster, Channel 9 has the first two selections each round, with those matches slotted into their prime-time Thursday and Friday night schedule. Fox then has selections three and four, Nine takes game five, and Fox gets games six, seven and eight.
But irrespective of which order tonight's game was selected, rugby league tragics have an absolute ripper to watch and it could well finish as the most-viewed Monday Night Footy game of the year. This match-up is appetite-whetting for many, many reasons.
Firstly, it is No.2 against No.3. Secondly, nine current Origin players will be strutting their stuff while another two - Wade Graham and Jack Bird - are on the Origin Two selection cusp.
Then there are the mouth-watering match-ups, all over the park. The list reads like a who's who of rugby league: Barba v Coote; Bird v O'Neill; Morgan v Maloney; Scott v Fifita; Granville v Ennis; Cooper v Graham; Taumalolo v Gallen.
And, of course, the unfettered brilliance of Cowboys skipper Johnathan Thurston will be there, to terrorise anyone, at any time, anywhere on the field.
Somewhat surprisingly, stats favour the Sharks, who are chasing their 10th straight win tonight, one short of their record established back in 2002. Overall they hold a 23-16 advantage over the Cowboys, with their record at Shark Park an imposing 11-5.
Interestingly, the Sharks stole a small prize from the Cowboys last year when they beat them in Townsville in round 16. That night the Cowboys were en route to 12 successive wins.
But the eventual premiers exacted revenge 12 weeks later when they made the Sharks look gummy, thrashing them 39-nil in the semi-final. And they have been back at it already this year, the Cowboys won 20-14 in Townsville in round one.
On paper, splitting these teams tonight is a task. Even the bookies, after poring over every smidgen of statistical data into their melting pot, have them as equal favourites. But talk that this is a 2016 grand final preview is too premature. Admittedly, the Cowboys look the frontrunners to be there again but, as 50 years of history tells us, the Sharks are prone to fall at the final hurdle. Tonight will tell us much about this current, much-hyped model.