Steven Ross, North Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Cowboys v Knights
If you're looking for a more sincere and heartfelt game of football, good luck finding one. Newcastle's tributes to Alex McKinnon will continue after his life-altering injury, while a Cowboys outfit with their tail between their legs looks to atone for three straight weeks of misery and one very public dressing down from a disgruntled co-captain.
But the headlines don't stop there. The next comes in the form of sibling rivalry. The three Sims brothers – Ashton, Tariq and Korbin – look to face off for the first time in NRL competition. Then there's the 'reunion' of Cowboys utility Ray Thompson and Knights man mountain Kade Snowden. We were all reminded late last year of exactly why the league took steps to outlaw shoulder charges when Thompson felt the brunt of an accidental Snowden hit to the jaw, which saw the prop suspended for seven weeks and ended both men's seasons.
On current form, Newcastle has had a tumultuous 2014 but found some much-needed footing last week in a shutout win over Cronulla, while the northerners are currently floundering under substantial pre-season expectation. Being 'almost there' for the past three weeks, a simple dropped ball or two is the reason they find themselves just four places from the cellar.
On the team front, Newcastle will look to send the same 17 into battle this week, while the Cowboys list forward Ricky Thorby as available following a medial ligament tear last month.
Watch Out Cowboys: The home side will have to scrap for every inch of real estate against one of the better metre-eaters in the competition. While Jarrod Mullen is still missing from the line-up, last week's inclusion of Darius Boyd helped the Knights on their way to a season-best metres gained effort. Couple this with the Cowboys' propensity for untimely errors and the Knights may well nab some prime field position and subsequent points they might not otherwise be entitled to.
If there's one weakness to the Cowboys' defence it's on the fringes, which is usually Newcastle's meal ticket. Of the 13 tries conceded by the North Queensland this season, nine have been scored by the opposition's four outside backs. Although James McManus has only crossed once in 2014, he is an undoubted master at finding the chalk and he is due. It's feeding time!
Watch Out Knights: Any team's defensive line needs to be on high alert when coming up against the man of a million moves, Johnathan Thurston. And while the Cowboys attack leaves a lot to be desired right now, you always get the sense they can bust out 30 points on a whim. While Newcastle's shutout last week was impressive, they had conceded an average of 28 points in games prior to that. You can bet that if last Sunday was a fluke, Thurston will find them out quick smart.
Plays To Watch: Knights five-eighth Michael Dobson is tied for fifth league-wide in bomb kicks. While a simple play, a well-placed bomb – especially one swirling around in the Townsville's windy and humid sky – provides a tough prospect for any outside back to control. Look for Dobson to target young Cowboys Winger Kyle Feldt as he is equal league leader in dropped bomb kicks with two.
Look for the Cowboys hitmen to drill in on young halfback Tyrone Roberts. The Newcastle No.7 is outright second in the league in missed tackles (21), trailing only Wests Tigers half Luke Brooks (25).
Key Match-Up: Adding to the theatre will be the above-mentioned sibling rivalry between Cowboys Ashton and Tariq and Knight Korbin. What makes this battle of Sims all the more interesting is how the three match up directly – all big boppers having some fun up the middle. But don't think the Sims brothers are just out for each other; oldest Ashton is probably the one guy you do not want to know after a loss… and the Cowboys have suffered three of them.
Where It Will Be Won: The left side of the field will be crucial in deciding the outcome. It's no secret that the Knights like to go left, but even when the play is telegraphed, stopping it remains a challenge. As stated above, the home side must watch out for the flying Scot first and foremost. Arguably the best timer of a run in the competition, McManus and his sidekick, centre Joseph Leilua, will prove more and more important as the game progresses and legs get tired. As both teams frequently use their outside men as battering rams on move-forward, expect the game to be played more on the edge of the ruck. And as outside backs get tired from the elevated workload, we should see more points put up.
The History: Played 30; Cowboys 13, Knights 17. Back in 1998 there was a six-year drought about to take hold before the Cowboys finally got the better of the Knights in June 2004 with a thumping 30-6 win in Townsville, their third biggest win in 30 clashes with the Novocastrians. In two meetings last year there were convincing wins for the respective home sides but the Cowboys have the better of recent history, winning four of the past five. There is a significant piece of history attached to meetings between these two teams in Townsville; in Round 22, 2003 the Knights racked up a record first half scoreline of 48-0 on their way to a 60-24 victory, Kurt Gidley the only surviving member of that side.
What Are The Odds: Sportbet.com.au reports punters have launched into Newcastle with money flooding in nine to one for them and as a result they're into $2.65 from $2.90. The Cowboys have eased $1.39 to $1.50.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Dave Munro; Touch Judges – Michael Wise & Peter Gough; Video Referees – Matt Cecchin & Andrew Dunemann.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7pm.
The Way We See It: Thurston's on-field outburst last Monday may just be the rocket his Cowboys team needs. When things do eventually click, they are one of the scariest prospects in the NRL, but will it happen this week? A criticism thus far has been a lack of enterprise and hard running, but expect their lines to space out, guys to hit gaps and simply muscle their way through. On the other hand, statistics and form show that if the Knights needle away at certain areas of the Cowboys' line, they may ride the wave to a second consecutive win. Another Monday night toss of the coin. Cowboys by four points.
*Statistics: Champion Data.
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