Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
Cowboys v Rabbitohs
What a shame that a game most would have predicted would be a clash of the titans when the 2013 season draw was first released will instead have zero bearing on the outcome of the competition.
This has been a truly forgettable season for North Queensland, who were supposed to challenge for the premiership this year given their star-studded roster but instead saw their slim finals hopes evaporate completely with last week’s lost to Brisbane. It was their 12th defeat of the year.
And so instead of sitting alongside Saturday’s opponents South Sydney near the top of the Telstra Premiership ladder, the Cowboys this week saw coach Neil Henry told his services will no longer be required in 2014. None could have predicted that just a few short months ago.
It’s hard to know exactly where it has all gone wrong for the Townsville club this year. Fullback Matt Bowen has missed plenty of game time with injury yet even since returning and showing some good form he hasn’t been able to inspire the Cowboys to victory. Likewise captain Johnathan Thurston who was so brilliant in guiding the Maroons to another Origin series win.
Their Test front row duo of Matt Scott and James Tamou have been making plenty of metres too but when it comes to effectiveness in the 20-metre zone the Cowboys have been frustratingly poor at both ends of the field.
On the other hand, little has been able to halt the South Sydney train this season with the competition leaders having now won six of their past seven games and overcome that shock late collapse to St George Illawarra two weeks ago with a big win over the Gold Coast last Saturday night.
The absence of injured fullback Greg Inglis remains their greatest concern heading into the finals but they showed again last weekend that when their monstrous pack starts rolling forward it doesn’t matter who it is looming up to capitalise on the opportunities.
With Tom Burgess now a regular member of the Rabbitohs squad, that makes three Burgess brothers for rivals to contend with and it comes as no surprise that they were the three South Sydney forwards to run for more than 100 metres against the Titans. No wonder their outside backs are having so much fun.
Stopping the Bunnies right now is going to take not only a brilliant team performance from their opposition but a determination to stand up to them physically. Given their current predicament, it’s hard to see North Queensland offering any of that.
Joel Riethmuller comes into the Cowboys’ starting side in place of Dallas Johnson who suffered a career-ending knee injury last week while the NYC’s all-time leading point-scorer, Kyle Feldt, makes his debut on the wing. Scott Moore, Tariq Sims and Jason Taumalolo return to the squad on an extended bench that also includes Scott Bolton and Rory Kostjasyn.
Souths coach Michael Maguire has named the same 17 that downed the Titans last week with Dave Tyrrell and Justin Hunt the extra men.
It has been four years since the Rabbitohs last travelled to Townsville where they have the chance to consign North Queensland to three straight home losses for the first time since 2010.
Meanwhile the Cowboys are averaging the fewest points at home since 2001 – at just 19.8 points per game.
Watch Out Cowboys: Those Burgess brothers are a menace! Rolling forward in waves last week against the Gold Coast, big George led the way for the Rabbitohs with 188 metres and a try, Sam backed that up with 141 metres and two tries while Tom made 122 metres coming off the bench. The Cowboys’ big men have their work cut out for them.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: Last year it was North Queensland’s right-edge combination of Brent Tate and Ashley Graham that was their “go-to” side; this year it is their left where they have found most success. The favoured side of Johnathan Thurston, the Cowboys are always dangerous when heading this way, with left winger Antonio Winterstein and left centre Kane Linnett their top two try scorers with 12 and seven tries respectively.
Plays To Watch: The Johnathan Thurston long ball to Antonio Winterstein on the left. Thurston’s right-to-left pass is lethal and he loves picking out his winger with room to move when the opportunity arises.
Keep an eye on George and Sam Burgess too when Souths are attacking inside the 20-metre zone. A favourite play is to have George draw in defenders with a powerful run, then for hooker Issac Luke to throw a face ball past his first runner to charging Sam. They have scored a number of tries in this manner in 2013.
Key Match-Up: Matt Scott v George Burgess. What an epic clash this one promises to be. Scott was brilliant for Queensland in this year’s State of Origin series, leading from the front as the Maroons came from a game down to make it eight series wins in a row. He also averages 149 metres per game for the Cowboys in 2013 but won’t have faced too many of Burgess’ ilk in his time. South Sydney’s man mountain has averaged 140 metres and made 76 tackle-breaks in 2013 while he is the master of opening up tryscoring opportunities with a strong charge and quick play-the-ball.
Where It Will Be Won: Defence through the middle will be critical – particularly for North Queensland who have conceded 20 points per game in 2013. The Rabbitohs like to punish sides up the middle with their plethora of big men but if the Cowboys can put a stop to that and even turn the tables we could have a very different game on our hands.
The History: Played 23; Rabbitohs 13, Cowboys 9, drawn 1. Souths have dominated this contest of late with eight wins from their past nine outings; however there have been a number of close games. In fact, seven of the past 11 clashes between these two sides in Townsville have been decided by a converted try or less.
Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Luke Phillips; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Chris Sutton; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Neil Wharton.
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 Rabbitohs clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: Let’s be blunt – it will take a miracle for North Queensland to win this game on current form. They simply haven’t been able to get anything going last year and even last week with their season on the line couldn’t get it together when they needed it most. Now they face the competition leaders who are playing with confidence and a forward pack that is the envy of the league. Let’s just hope it’s a contest. Rabbitohs by 16 points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats