Cronulla’s all-star pack must stop North Queensland tearaway Jason Taumalolo if they are to prove their premiership credentials in Monday night’s NRL blockbuster at Shark Park.
Taumalolo is shaping as the key to the match-up with statistics showing New Zealand’s Test wrecking ball has established himself as arguably the best forward in the competition.
This season Taumalolo leads the competition for running metres, averaging 166m per game, according to Fox Sports Stats.
Not only is the 113kg Auckland-born monster eating up the yardage for fun, his post-contact metres are among the best in the game, averaging 11 metres per carry, ensuring star halves Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan have plenty of room to play with.
When the two sides met in round one, Taumalolo was arguably the difference, making 200m from 17 carries as his side scraped home 20-14 in Townsville.
Sharks coach Shane Flanagan might be kicking himself this week after the club missed out on signing Taumalolo back in 2014.
NSW representative Paul Gallen and Andrew Fifita, along with Blues aspirant Wade Graham will be tasked with getting up in the face of Taumalolo, who shapes as the key to a season-defining clash.
After nine straight wins, Cronulla went into round 14 as ladder leaders – the first time they have been in first spot this late in the season since winning the minor premiership in 1999.
Since 1998, of the 17 teams to win nine in a row in a season, seven have gone on to make the grand final and four have lifted the Provan-Summons Trophy, a fact with augurs well for their title drought coming to an end.
“For me, the Cowboys are the benchmark. Them, the Storm, the Broncos, they’re all quality teams and a test to see how you’re going,” Flanagan said.
“There’s a long way to go, we’re excited and happy to be where we’re at the moment but we’re under no illusions. There’s a lot of football to be played and a lot of hard work still to be done.”
Flanagan said he had sensed an urgency in his side going into the clash with the premiers and had seen a lift in their tempo during Sunday’s captain’s run.
“I saw a change in them today,” Flanagan said.
“But they’re a pretty cool group, they know what they have to do. The whole group is excited about the challenges tomorrow presents.”