Matt Harris, Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Broncos v Cowboys
Friday 7.40pm (AEST)
The grand finalists from the Auckland Nines prepare for battle once again in the Queensland derby, almost one month on from the Cowboys' 16-7 triumph over the Broncos at Eden Park.
Despite the Nines trophy on fresh display at Cowboys’ headquarters, one would argue that snaring two Telstra Premiership points from the grasp of their Queensland cousins in a Members' Round battle is more crucial than a piece of pre-season silverware.
After falling behind 16-0 in the 28th minute against Canberra last Saturday, the Cowboys roped in the Raiders, scoring five tries to one in their 28-22 come-from-behind victory.
Johnathan Thurston produced yet another world-class performance, while Jason Taumalolo, Kane Linnett, Kyle Feldt and makeshift fullback Michael Morgan were also impressive.
If there’s one lesson to be learnt from the Broncos pre-season it’s that trial form counts for nothing; their 18-12 Round 1 win against the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium is testament to that.
Although questions still remain over Brisbane’s halves combination and are likely to linger throughout the season, the Round 1 pairing of Ben Hunt and Josh Hoffman is clearly a work in progress. It may only take one or two poor performances by Hoffman in the No.6 for Anthony Griffin to shuffle his deck again and roll the dice on a new five-eighth.
One area of concern for the Broncos is their over-reliance on Hunt’s kicking game, which was average at best against the Bulldogs.
However, the signing of Ben Barba already seems vindicated after his display against his former club last week. Brisbane’s new fullback was lively from kick-off, producing a weaving kick-return gaining almost 20 metres and setting up Dale Copley for the opening try with a deftly placed grubber kick - all within the opening seven minutes.
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Watch Out Broncos: The Broncos’ right-edge defence of Matt Gillett, Dale Copley and Lachlan Maranta now have two JTs they’ll need to contend with on Friday night – Johnathan Thurston and Jason Taumalolo.
The ‘JT combo’ terrorised the Raiders from the outset last weekend, with both players denied tries on the left-edge from agonisingly close range in the first half. Taumalolo was pulled down only inches short of the line in the sixth minute after storming onto a Thurston pass. The 20-year-old then turned provider for Thurston in the 25th minute, when the Cowboys co-captain was denied a try by the hand of Anthony Milford after being held up over the line.
The 112kg Auckland-born wrecking ball, who played three games for Tonga in the 2013 World Cup, produced some astounding Round 1 stats, with the young back-rower churning out more than 200 metres in his first 80-minute match at NRL level.
It remains to be seen whether he can replicate his dominant display against the Raiders on a week-in, week-out basis. Last season he averaged 85 metres over 14 matches but now the bar has now been raised significantly higher for the Cowboys' No.12.
Watch Out Cowboys: One of Taumalolo’s Tongan teammate’s, Brisbane-born Daniel Vidot, shapes as a key acquisition for the Broncos in season 2014.
The Brisbane flyer – a 188cm, 105kg man mountain - racked up more than 150 metres from the wing against the 'Dogs, steamrolling opposite number Corey Thompson en route to the Broncos’ second try. His increased work-rate helped alleviate the pressure on the Brisbane forward pack, reminding long-standing Broncos fans about a couple of former powerhouse wingers – Wendell Sailor and Lote Tuqiri.
Vidot has a handy try-scoring record over his 81 NRL games, crossing the line 42 times so far during a career that has also seen him at the Raiders and the Dragons. He’ll be looking for a return to the 2010 form he displayed in the nation’s capital, where he crossed for 16 tries in 25 appearances.
Plays To Watch: The Broncos to attempt the same tactic which led to Dale Copley’s opening try against the Bulldogs. If the Cowboys are too enthusiastic in defence and rush up to smother either Ben Barba or Ben Hunt – as the 'Dogs did against their former teammate in Round 1 – expect a neatly placed grubber kick behind the line looking for speedsters such as Vidot, Copley and Maranta to latch on to.
Another kicking option the Broncos have up their sleeve is launching high balls in the direction of Jack Reed to make use of his aerial prowess, although this tactic produces a 50/50 outcome at best.
Where It Will Be Won: Defence. Based solely on their 2013 defensive stats, the Cowboys hold a slight advantage over the Broncos in five key areas: missed tackles (22.3 compared to 27 per match), line breaks conceded (3.7 to 4.5 per match), offloads conceded (8.8 to 9.7), tackle percentage (92.2 per cent to 91.2) and points conceded (18 points to 19.9).
Defence will be crucial considering four of the last six meetings between these sides have been decided by just two points.
The History: Played 36; Broncos 26, Cowboys 8, drawn 2. The past eight encounters between the Broncos and Cowboys have been shared four apiece but Cowboys fans and club officials will no doubt remember the dark early days of the rivalry. It took 17 attempts before the Cowboys beat big brother – ironically in a 2004 semi-final that Wayne Bennett agreed be moved to Townsville – and their record at Suncorp is four wins from 16 clashes, their last victory there coming in the corresponding game two years ago courtesy of a Matt Bowen try on the bell.
What Are The Odds: The Cowboys have opened narrow favourites with the bookies; they are at $1.75 against the Broncos ($2.08) with Sportsbet.com.au but punters are torn on who’ll get the bacon with money 50/50 so far. The line is a skinny 2.0 points at $1.90, indicating it’ll be a close game. Cowboys 1-12 at $3.10 has attracted the bulk of money in early margin betting.
Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Michael Wise; Video Referees – Luke Phillips & Andrew Dunemann.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld); Delayed 9.30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: This is a toss-of-the-coin job. The pressure is on the Broncos to produce a committed and polished performance in front of an expected 40,000-plus parochial home crowd. The Broncos only managed a 50 per cent success rate at Suncorp Stadium last season, so they need to turn the Lang Park cauldron into a fortress once again.
On the other side of the coin you have Johnathan Thurston, a man who once again single-handedly pulled the Cowboys out of the fire with his whirlwind display against the Raiders last weekend. His general kicking game and consistent accuracy with conversions could be the difference in what shapes as a nail-biting opener to Round 2 of the Telstra Premiership. Cowboys by 4 points.
*Statistics: Champion Data
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