Johnathan Thurston's kicking game will need to be on song if the Cowboys are to get the better of the Broncos in Townsville. Credit: NRL Photos. Copyright: Colin Whelan.
Cowboys v Broncos
When these two bitter rivals run out on Friday night the countdown to State of Origin will be inside the 20-day mark and the start of a period where both the Broncos and Cowboys traditionally hold on for dear life.
Unless either state coach springs some shocks on us the Cowboys and Broncos are both likely to contribute four players to the respective Origin teams and be forced to play without them in Round 11. The Cowboys will also miss their stars in the Round 17 game against the Dragons in Sydney.
So, given their current position outside the top eight the importance of this game to North Queensland is magnified significantly as they look to build on an impressive last-start win over Parramatta.
Co-captain Johnathan Thurston missed three games during the Origin period last year and the Cowboys lost each one, piling further pressure on coach Neil Henry who would see out the season but no further.
Dynamic lock forward Tariq Sims has been named but will be monitored after suffering an ankle injury in the drawn Country-City fixture last Sunday but Test representatives Thurston, Matt Scott, James Tamou and Ashton Sims all came through unscathed and should take their place against the Broncos.
There is an extensive list of Broncos in and out of the casualty ward at present also with Sam Thaiday battling to return from a calf injury, Josh Hoffman and Alex Glenn both fighting to be fit after missing a Test appearance with the Kiwis, Justin Hodges and Ben Barba failing to train early in the week and Martin Kennedy rolling his ankle on Monday.
Once again Thaiday has been left out, Kennedy has been passed fit and former international Ben Hannant sensationally left out altogether, his place on the bench taken by David Hala despite racking up 16 hit-ups, 34 tackles, three offloads and a total of 160 metres in his last start against the Rabbitohs.
A loss to the Cowboys and a win by the Panthers over Newcastle could see the Broncos drop out of the top eight while a win would see North Queensland catapult up the ladder from 12th to be knocking on the door of the top four.
Given the circumstances surrounding a number of their games in 2014 both the Cowboys and Broncos could justifiably go into this game feeling like jilted lovers questioning how the world could be so cruel. But two competition points here could represent a long-standing relationship with the top eight with the lure of a (premiership) ring at the end of it.
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Watch Out Cowboys: After making a spectacular return from his second Achilles heel injury against the Eels in Round 5, star centre Justin Hodges has been a bit on the quiet side in the three weeks since. He had a forgettable outing against the Titans and was thrust into the unfamiliar position of five-eighth last start against the Rabbitohs so the former Cairns Kangaroo junior will be out for a big one against the Cowboys. After busting through eight tackles in his first two games back Hodges has been only able to produce two more in the next two outings and hasn't been able to bust through the 100-metre mark since Round 6. The week off will have done him the world of good and his burning desire to be part of Mal Meninga's Maroons squad for Game One should inspire a big performance.
Watch Out Broncos: They are a new combination but the experience of Brent Tate and youthful enthusiasm of Curtis Rona have been delivering rich rewards for the Cowboys on the right edge in attack.
When Rona made his debut against the Sea Eagles in Round 7 he could console himself after a heart-breaking loss with a first-up try while the senior centre on his inside grabbed a double.
A week later it was Tate's turn to be provider, laying on two try assists for Rona to get himself a double and take his tally to three tries in two top-grade appearances.
Thurston's fondness for shifting the ball to the Cowboys' right side will be a key focus in Broncos video sessions this week and will be vital in containing Tate and Rona.
Plays To Watch: With the shift of Ray Thompson to halfback to control the right side and the emergence of Morgan as a playmaking option on the left, the Cowboys now boast threats on both sides of the park. That enables Thurston to work both sides of the field depending on where he sees an opportunity and which resulted in four tries on the left-hand side of the field and three on the right against Parramatta.
Brisbane fullback Ben Barba has been given similar freedom to roam for the Broncos but their most potent attacking opportunities invariably stem from a Corey Parker offload, the co-captain the most proficient in the competition with 24.
Where It Will Be Won: With the rule changes that have come into effect in 2014, the ruck area has become more frantic in nature as teams look to capitalise on quicker play-the-ball speeds and retreating defensive lines.
The Broncos have shown more of a willingness to exploit this with dummy-half runs than most teams and have tested the opposition in that manner on 46 more occasions than the Cowboys through eight games. Powerful runners such as Justin Hodges, Daniel Vidot, Dale Copley are adept at getting Broncos sets rolling while hooker Andrew McCullough's 458 metres from dummy-half are second only to Robbie Farah in the NRL this season.
If McCullough can take control of the ruck area, the Broncos are a good chance of solidifying their place in the top eight.
The History: Played 36; Cowboys 8, Broncos 26, drawn 2. The Broncos' 16-12 win in Round 2 further added to their dominance over their northern rivals who were victorious in all three clashes between the two teams in 2012 but lost both encounters in 2013. The home side are facing a fourth consecutive defeat at the hands of the Broncos on Friday night but the good news is one more converted try should be enough to turn the tables; the last three meetings have been decided by four points or less. The Broncos also find 1300SMILES Stadium very welcoming having won six of the past eight games there stretching back to 2007.
Match Officials: Referees - Gerard Sutton & Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges - Nick Beashel & Jason Walsh; Video Referees - Jared Maxwell & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld); Delayed 9.30pm (NSW).
The Way We See It: There's a lot on the line in this one. The Cowboys are desperate to gather some winning momentum before their stars leave for their Origin hiatus while the Broncos are in danger of seeing a promising start to the year slip away at the hands of some cruel losses. The move of Ray Thompson to halfback paid dividends in North Queensland's win over Parramatta but is it a short-gap fix or a long-term solution? The Broncos have a more settled squad and their record at Townsville is impressive and it's hard not to see the recent run of close margins repeating in this one. Cowboys by four points.