Cronulla Sharks coach Shane Flanagan is adamant his team are ready to pass the NRL’s toughest test – shutting down Johnathan Thurston.
Cronulla host North Queensland at Allianz Stadium tonight one win away from their first grand final in 20 years but will need to stop arguably the game’s best player if they are to progress.
Thurston battled a stomach bug but still managed to orchestrate a dramatic extra-time victory for his side in their elimination final against Brisbane last weekend.
And for Flanagan, stopping the champion Queensland half will go a long way toward victory.
“We all have [the ultimate challenge.] The 17 players, the coaching staff, we’ve got a challenge against him,” he said.
“He’s a quality player and we need to be on our game. He was crook last week and [after] seven days he would have put that weight back on.
“He’ll be ready to go and we expect him to be at his best.”
Despite playing for 90 minutes last weekend Flanagan doesn’t expect that extra-time victory over the Broncos to hurt North Queensland too badly.
The Cowboys had a similarly tough road to last season’s decider which they won in equally dramatic fashion.
“No, I don’t [think the Cowboys will be jaded]. [They’ve had] seven days [since their last game], they’re a hardened footy team,” he said.
“They would have been timing their run for semi-finals. Last year they showed they lost their first semi and went two wins and then extra-time in a grand final.
“Last week was very similar to last year. Going into extra-time, a battle-hardened footy team we’ll see tomorrow night.
“They’re only going to be jaded and fatigued if we make them and we put them under pressure and that’s the challenge.
“But I don’t see any effect of the last couple of weeks.”
Cronulla’s recent record against North Queensland has been good, winning three of their last five matches and the last two in a row in Sydney.
But memories of that 39-0 drubbing the Sharks suffered in Townsville as the Cowboys charged to their first premiership are still fresh in the mind.
Flanagan though said Cronulla are a much better team than last year.
“I said after that game to Birdy and Val and Feki and Ricky Leutele, those kind of blokes hadn’t been in finals series’ before,” he said.
“To get there and understand the step up and what quality teams and in the end premiers can do, they’ll learn from that and I think they have.
“In the back of their mind they understand that and coming into [the Raiders game] they knew it as well. Semi-finals are a different kind of footy.”
Michael Ennis will play his 50th game for Cronulla.