Cronulla and North Queensland faced the same questions in 2023 - but the paths taken couldn't be more different

For better or worse, the Cowboys and Sharks are intertwined in the way their 2022 campaigns played out. Both played some brilliant football at times but were continually left without the respect and adulation that would normally come in 17 and 18-win seasons, respectively.

It was the soft draw, it was getting the big teams at the right times. There were plenty of excuses made as to why they had both so greatly exceeded their expectations.

The problem was, as churlish as these criticisms seemed at times - they were ultimately vindicated with what happened in the finals. The pair combined to win just one of their four finals games, and that was when they played each other.

No matter, sometimes things happen and you can get unlucky. The Cowboys especially, could have made the Grand Final on another day.

But with those post-season frustrations came a chance in 2023 to prove people wrong. After tonight, the pair couldn't be much further apart.

The Sharks have, for the time being, nestled themselves into second place on the ladder - exactly where they finished last year. The Cowboys though, are third last, and look every bit the regression candidates that people pegged them as.

For the first 40 minutes of the season they were absolutely scintillating in what ended up being a one-point win over the Raiders - but since then? There's been very little to be excited about.

The clinical attack of last year just hasn't been there - their highest score this year was in a 24-12 win over the Titans. They reached that many points or more in 18 of their games last season.

Chad Townsend's try assist numbers seem OK on face value, but even the premiership-winning halfback hasn't steered the team around with as much patience and cleverness as he did last year.

Tom Dearden, who had fifteen try assists last year, has just one in eight games so far. Jeremiah Nanai's gaudy try total from 2022 was unlikely to ever be sustainable, but he has been nowhere near as effective in any facet of the game as he was last season and is now facing his second lengthy suspension in as many months.

Josh Drinkwater was their most exciting player last year but already missed a few weeks through suspension, while star forward Jason Taumalolo will likely not be seen for another month.

Without that late win last week against Newcastle, the situation would be even more dire.

They've already burned through five of their 12 allotted home games, only winning three. In previous years, they relied on some of these home bankers to boost them up the ladder. And especially this year, when so many teams will be nomadic during the FIFA Women's World Cup, that home advantage should have been extremely valuable.

Next up, a packed house full of mostly-neutral fans at Magic Round, and across from them the Roosters. A team that has had to answer some questions about their own attack, but looks to be working towards something with team changes, rather than the same line-up as last year simply failing to execute, which is what the Cowboys currently are.

The fact that it's largely been the same team as last year is the biggest concern - and one that with every passing week of disappointment, further vindicates those that didn't believe in them.

There's still two-thirds of a season to turn everything around. But where and how that would happen is anyone's guess.