North Queensland Cowboys veteran half Johnathan Thurston has been named to play in his 300th NRL game, the 30th player to reach the milestone in Australian rugby league.
Ben Hampton is the surprise inclusion in the starting team for the Cowboys, named at fullback with Lachlan Coote out of the side due to a hamstring strain.
Te Maire Martin is named as the bench utility for the Cowboys beating out young gun Kyle Laybutt.
Sione Katoa has been named to make his NRL debut on the wing for the Cronulla Sharks, beating out recruit Aaron Gray.
Big gun recruits Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan will play at five-eighth and centre respectively, with fellow recruit Ava Seumanufagai also named to play off the bench.
Key match-up: Jason Taumalolo v Paul Gallen. Whichever of these two beasts can lay a platform for their halves to operate on will go a long way to securing the points. With round one games rarely looking polished, good field position is all the more important and these two are arguably the best in the business at chewing up metres.
For the Cowboys to win: Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott's returns to the NRL will need to be excellent for the Cowboys to get over the Sharks. Similarly Ben Hampton will have to be talkative at the back and have good defence to stifle the Sharks' attack.
For the Sharks to win: If the visitors want to take home the two competition points their new combinations will have to gel. Matt Moylan, Josh Dugan and Chad Townsend will undoubtedly turn the Sharks' backline into an attacking weapon as the year progresses, but it will need to go a long way towards that in Round 1 for them to get through the Cowboys' defence.
Cowboys Stat Attack: In 2017 The Cowboys kicked for 13,314 metres, equal that of premiers the Melbourne Storm. The development of Michael Morgan has added an extra kicker to their repertoire, which will help them with field position on Friday night.
Sharks Stat Attack: In 2017 the Sharks won 10 of their 12 away games. They love to travel and won't have any issues with the climate in Townsville. If the Cowboys think the home ground advantage will get them across the line, they'll be staring down the barrel of a loss to start their run this year.
And another thing… Johnathan Thurston's 300th NRL game should have all of Townsville trying to pack itself into the stands of 1300 SMILES Stadium, giving both sides a bumper start to the 2018 season.
Match: Cowboys v Sharks
Round 1 -
Venue: 1300SMILES Stadium, Townsville
The prediction: Cowboys by 12.
1300 Smiles Stadium, Townsville, Friday March 9, 8:05pm.
Head-to-head: Played 44, Sharks 27 wins, Cowboys 17 wins.
Last five games:
- 2017 qualifying final; North Queensland Cowboys def. Cronulla Sharks 15-14.
- Round 24, 2017; Cronulla Sharks def. North Queensland Cowboys 26-16.
- Round 11, 2017; Cronulla Sharks def. North Queensland Cowboys 18-14.
- 2016 preliminary final; Cronulla Sharks def. North Queensland Cowboys 32-20.
- Round 14, 2016; Cronulla Sharks def. North Queensland Cowboys 13-10.
2017 points per game: Cowboys 19.3; Sharks 19.6.
2017 points conceded per game: Cowboys 18.3; Sharks 16.8.
Televised: Live on Nine, Fox League
Cowboys: 1 Ben Hampton, 2 Kyle Feldt, 3 Justin O'Neill, 4 Javid Bowen, 5 Antonio Winterstein, 6 Michael Morgan, 7 Johnathan Thurston (c), 8 Matthew Scott (c), 9 Jake Granville, 10 Jordan McLean, 11 Gavin Cooper, 12 Ethan Lowe, 13 Jason Taumalolo
Interchange: 14 Te Maire Martin, 15 Coen Hess, 16 Scott Bolton, 17 John Asiata
Reserves: 18 Corey Jensen, 19 Kyle Laybutt, 20 Francis Molo, 21 Enari Tuala
Sharks: 1 Valentine Holmes, 2 Sosaia Feki, 3 Josh Dugan, 4 Ricky Leutele, 5 Sione Katoa, 6 Matt Moylan, 7 Chad Townsend, 8 Andrew Fifita, 9 Jayden Brailey, 10 Matthew Prior, 11 Luke Lewis, 12 Wade Graham, 13 Paul Gallen (c)
Interchange: 14 Jayson Bukuya, 15 James Segeyaro, 16 Avagalu Seumanufagai, 17 Joseph Paulo
Reserves: 18 Kurt Capewell, 19 Kurt Dillon, 20 Aaron Gray, 21 Trent Hodkinson
Match officials: Main referee: Gerard Sutton, Assistant referee: Chris Butler, Touch judges: Michael Wise, Belinda Sleeman.