Sharks stars anoint Cowboys the team to beat
CRONULLA stars Luke Lewis and Valentine Holmes have heaped the pressure on the Cowboys before their round one blockbuster by declaring them the "benchmark" in Johnathan Thurston's swan song season.
Despite being without co-captains Thurston and Matt Scott, the Cowboys shocked the 2016 premiers by ending their title defence in a golden point epic in week one of last year's finals.
And with the big guns set to return, 2016 Clive Churchill medallist Lewis had little hesitation anointing the Cowboys title favourites before Thurston's 300th NRL game in Townsville.
"I believe they're the team to beat, I really do," Lewis said.
"They played in a grand final without Matt Scott and JT, you throw those two players back in that side and they're pretty special.
"(Melbourne Storm recruit) Jordan McLean will be outstanding for them, a big body who has played for Australia.
"Their forward pack is one of the best going around, they've got outside backs who can finish and have probably the two best halves in the game (Thurston and Michael Morgan) leading it.
"On paper, for me they're the team to beat."
Townsville junior Holmes, who will start at fullback for Cronulla this year despite the recruitment of Matt Moylan and Josh Dugan, agrees.
"We think they're going to be the benchmark, considering how well they went last year without some of their best players," Holmes said.
"We've already started to prepare for that game and we know it's JT's 300th, Matt Scott's back and they've got a massive forward pack.
"I love playing against them, I can't wait."
Lewis insisted they won't be spurred on by last year's finals upset.
"They deserved the win, and wanted it more than us," Lewis said.
"We've got a great running battle with North Queensland, we've played a lot of tight, close games in big matches.
"They had that hunger and never-say-die attitude, and hung in there when things got tough."
Lewis has played alongside Thurston for Australia and said he deserves every accolade he gets.
But he hopes his 300th "isn't too memorable".
"I always count myself pretty lucky I got to play with him in the Australian games," Lewis said.
"He's one of those blokes you love to play with and hate to play against, but at the same time have so much respect for.
"What sums him up is his laugh. You could be down or flat but when someone says something which makes him laugh, he makes you laugh.
"I hope he doesn't have too good a night, but enjoys the occasion."
The Cowboys are on the Sunshine Coast for a training camp until Wednesday and are awaiting scans on a suspected pectoral injury centre Kane Linnett picked up in the Thurston-Cameron Smith testimonial match in Brisbane on Friday night.
Fullback Lachlan Coote lasted around ten minutes before coming off with tightness in a minor hamstring injury he's carried recently, but is expected to play in round one.