Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Cowboys v Broncos
This is it. Do or die. A must-win.
They are the clichés we throw about all the time but rarely do they sum up a situation as accurately as they do this week when the Broncos and Cowboys face off with their respective seasons on the line.
It could already be too late. With both sides sitting on 16 competition points – three wins outside the top eight – they will need to win at least six but possibly all seven of their remaining games to sneak into the finals in 2013 and on recent form that seems an impossible task.
But one thing we can safely predict is that while the winner of this clash can cling to some sort of hope, the loser can wave goodbye to any premiership aspirations this season.
Needless to say it has been a disappointing year for two sides that held much loftier aspirations four months ago.
No side has under-performed as badly as North Queensland in 2013. One of the pre-season premiership favourites, they boast a squad most other NRL clubs would be envious of with four current State of Origin stars, two more with Origin experience and a number predicted to don state colours in the future.
Yet they have never looked like a top-four side or even a top-eight side and have won consecutive games only twice this season. The upside for them is the return from injury of fullback Matt Bowen, who impressed in his first game back against Manly last start, and the fact that the representative period is finally over.
Coach Neil Henry will have noted the brilliant performances of Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Brent Tate in Queensland’s win in the Origin decider and will be hoping they can reproduce that form for the remainder of the season as they look to mount a late charge.
Brisbane have endured a remarkably similar season to their Queensland rivals. They showed some promise early, winning three in a row from Rounds 5-7, but haven’t won consecutive games since and will be desperate to break their current three-game losing streak.
The Broncos also welcome back their Origin contingent of Sam Thaiday, Matt Gillett and Corey Parker this week but questions remain over whether they boast the strike to mount an undefeated charge into the finals given their struggles with the ball in 2013.
Could this season represent just the second time since 1991 that they’ve failed to reach the playoffs?
Broncos coach Anthony Griffin has sprung a selection shock this week with Corey Norman dumped to Queensland Cup and Josh Hoffman moved to his preferred fullback spot from the wing. Halfback Peter Wallace has also been demoted to the bench with Ben Hunt handed the No.7 jersey. Prop Ben Hannant has been named to make his return from a calf injury although he remains in serious doubt.
North Queensland’s changes revolve around the return of their Origin stars who have all been named in the starting side. Michael Morgan is also back in the halfback role in place of Robert Lui while Gavin Cooper and Dallas Johnson are back in the starting 13. Kalifa Faifai Loa moves to the wing in place of injured talisman Ashley Graham, with Tariq Sims dropped.
Matt Bowen is one try away from becoming just the sixth man ever to score 70 tries at a single venue. The Cowboys haven’t lost in the week following a bye since 2010.
Watch Out Cowboys: What impact will Josh Hoffman have now that he has returned to fullback? The Kiwi international has been one of the Broncos’ best this season since moving to the wing – averaging 118 metres, scoring 14 tries from 17 games and making 78 tackle-breaks (second in the NRL behind only Greg Inglis). However, Hoffman is renowned for his superb kick returns and was just as effective in the No.1 jersey last year where he averaged 146 metres and made 111 tackle-breaks.
Watch Out Broncos: Brisbane’s big men have a tough task against the North Queensland front row with Matt Scott and James Tamou sure to return playing better football as a result of being involved with State of Origin. That’s of particular concern for the visitors given that both were in pretty decent form anyway before the representative season began. Scott has averaged 147 metres per game in 2013 and Tamou 144 – placing them fourth and fifth respectively for front-rowers across the board this season.
Plays To Watch: The Johnathan Thurston cut-out ball to the left. This is Thurston’s best side when it comes to his passing game and his long balls in particular are lethal. That was evident in State of Origin II when he twice threw brilliant passes to send Darius Boyd over but he has also demonstrated the danger of giving his left winger Antonio Winterstein room to move in 2013 with similar plays. It comes as no surprise that Winterstein is the Cowboys’ top try-scorer this season with 11.
Key Match-Up: Matt Bowen v Josh Hoffman. Just how big a boost will Matt Bowen’s return from injury prove to be for the Cowboys? At his best, Bowen is a match-winner with his speed off the mark and ability to slice through a gap. He certainly looked dangerous against Manly two weeks ago when he darted through a gap to score his side’s first try. Likewise, Josh Hoffman’s input is vital for Brisbane who have struggled to score points in 2013 and will be looking to him to add some impact.
Where It Will Be Won: In the halves. If Johnathan Thurston brings the form he showed in the second and third Origin games back to Townsville a big run home is very much on the cards. At the Broncos, Scott Prince and Peter Wallace have come in for plenty of criticism this year and they will need to fire if Brisbane are to score a crucial away win this week. Do they have enough points in them?
The History: Played 35; Broncos 25, Cowboys 8, drawn 2. The Cowboys have won four of their past six games against Brisbane – however the Broncos enjoy a better record in Townsville than at any other venue (78 per cent).
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Grant Atkins; Sideline Officials – Adam Gee & Michael Wise; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Justin Morgan.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone, iPad or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week, including the Cowboys v Broncos clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Download the NRL Live 2013 App and watch every NRL match on your Smart Phone or iPad. Download now for iPhone and iPad or Android
Televised: Channel 9 – Live, 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: Neither of these two sides has filled us with a lot of confidence this season but with their season on the line and a big home crowd expected we can see the Cowboys proving too strong in this one. Key to our thinking is the presence of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen, who provide the sort of strike power the Broncos simply don’t boast in 2013. Thurston’s brilliant form for Queensland in the last two Origins should give him plenty of confidence and we think he will lead the Cowboys to victory in this one. Cowboys by 10 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats