Cronulla have promised a fiery welcome for North Queensland’s much-vaunted forward pack as they seek to finally erase the painful memory of last year’s NRL finals exit.
The Sharks will meet the Cowboys at Allianz Stadium on Friday night for a spot in the grand final in what promises to be a hostile encounter.
The last time the two sides met, the Sharks ran out 13-10 winners at Shark Park after springing an ambush on the premiers in round 14.
The game was full of spite with Sharks back-rower Wade Graham rubbed out of his State of Origin debut after being charged with a high tackle on Johnathan Thurston, while Cowboys prop James Tamou was lucky to escape suspension for a shoulder charge on NSW Blues teammate Andrew Fifita.
The Sharks went into the game looking to fight fire with fire after being blown off the park 39-0 by the Cowboys in last year’s semi-final.
That loss in week two of the finals still stings many in the Sharks’ dressing room and prop Matt Prior said the only way to go with the Cowboys was to take it to the likes of Tamou, Matt Scott and Jason Taumalolo from the opening whistle.
“I think you have to, especially with their big pack,” Prior said.
“They rely on their big boys to get them forward at the start of the game so you’ve got to try to match them early or they’ll just blow you off the park like they did to us last year in the semi.”
Prior shapes as a key figure in the Sharks’ charge to what they hope will be their maiden premiership after a breakout performance in their semi-final victory over Canberra.
After inspirational skipper Paul Gallen was rubbed out pre game and losing back-rower Wade Graham 10 minutes into the contest, Prior proved an unlikely hero in their 16-14 win in the nation’s capital.
Having averaged just over 40 minutes all year, Prior played 73 minutes, ran for 223 metres and scored a crucial try to bring his side back into the game just before halftime.
With Chris Heighington likely to leave the club next year and Sam Tagataese off-contract, Prior shapes as the answer to the leadership void coach Shane Flanagan could be faced with next year.
“It was one of the better performances of my career,” Prior said.
“It was good to get a few more minutes. At the back end of the year I’ve been lucky enough to get a few more minutes.
“I wasn’t too worried when Wado went down, I know I can play longer minutes if need be. When I come off I feel I can stay on, so I never really doubted myself in that aspect.”