Steven Ross, North Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Cowboys v Rabbitohs
If this one is anything like the corresponding clash in 2013, it will be a season-defining 80 minutes for the Cowboys.
Riding a wave of emotion after the passing of former coach Graham Murray last July, North Queensland flicked a switch to hammer the then-premiership-favourites South Sydney 30-12 in Round 21; rebounding from a 2-8 record over the 10 games prior. The Cows wouldn’t lose a single game for the remainder of the regular season and earned themselves a finals berth.
Things are a little different this year, however, and it is safe to say they would not want to put themselves in that same position again. Probably the second-most unlucky team in terms of injuries this year, the Cowboys will be without the very men who starred in that run, with their playmaking stocks also further reduced with Ray Thompson suffering an injury in last Monday’s defeat to Newcastle.
The side that was meant to be “freshened up” after a Round 14 bye proved no match for an even more energised Knights attack (second-worst in the competition) that aired the frustrations of a two-month losing streak by piling on seven tries; and that is what strikes coach Paul Green as most disappointing.
“It’s frustrating because we are a different team defensively when we are away from home compared to when we are at home,” he said post-game.
Away from the Townsville turf, their average number of points conceded has now reached double (24 points) compared with a league-best 12 points at home.
While things are turning sour north of the border, they are just heating up around the suburbs where the game found its Australian roots.
The red and green are well and truly firing on all cylinders thanks largely to star teenagers Alex Johnston and Dylan Walker along with the devastating running game from all four Burgess brothers. They have averaged 32 points over the past three games while keeping their league-best defence in shape.
In team news, the home side has been shuffled more than a 10-year-old pack of cards lately and this week is no different. Ray Thompson has been ruled out with the hamstring injury suffered early against Newcastle. His good mate Robert Lui has been promoted to the starting team at five-eighth with Johnathan Thurston moving to halfback for the first time this year.
Glenn Hall drops back to the bench for Jason Taumalolo with Scott Bolton moving to prop and Tariq Sims to lock. Anthony Mitchell is named on the bench as utility cover.
For the away side, Greg Inglis, Chris McQueen and Ben Te'o have all been named to start after returning from Origin duties. Nathan Merritt shifts to the wing to replace Lote Tuqiri, while Ben Lowe reverts to the bench. Joe Picker and Luke Burgess drop out of the squad.
Get your ticket to NRL Round 16
Watch Out Cowboys: They would struggle to contain the competition’s best forward pack at the best of times, and this is anything but for North Queensland. With Matt Scott and Gavin Cooper absent from their best 17, it will be just short of a miracle if they break even against the likes of Burgess (x 3), Te’o and McQueen.
If you would choose any team to avoid facing with the kind of injuries North Queensland have, it would be South Sydney. The best defensive team in the NRL is all but guaranteed to put the clamps on a Cowboys outfit stripped to bare bones in the playmaking stocks.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: As the Cowboys’ attack is largely predicated on strong go-forward in the middle third, the visitors should largely have the home side covered, but therein lies the problem. NBA superstar Kevin Durant once said: "Hard work beats talent if talent doesn’t work hard." That certainly rings true in any sporting contest, so if nothing else the Rabbitohs need to make sure they are matching motors with the home side from the outset, chiefly in the ruck with defensive line speed and play-the-balls. Every rugby league pundit knows that you can have the most intelligent structures and personnel, but if you do not bring it mentally, you’re in for a long night. North Queensland are not just a different defensive team at home, their attack is a lot more fluent – averaging 29 points at home compared with 15 points away.
Plays To Watch: It will be interesting to see how involved the Cowboys’ outside men are when it comes to bringing the ball up the paddock. Considering the short turnaround, their forwards are likely to run out of gas quicker than usual, so look for North Queensland to take a few tackles getting into the centre of the field, with the four outside backs chipping in to get through the heavy lifting.
Where It Will Be Won: It’s pretty clear the game will be won up the middle. Sam Burgess is simply demoralising every other forward in the competition at the moment, averaging exactly 24 more run metres (174.6 metres) than any other in the competition this year. And that’s the basis for South Sydney’s game. They are last in kicks and kick metres, but just mid-pack in terms of run metres. The balance can be attributed to penalties, where they draw the most in the competition largely due to defenders trying too hard to slow the play-the-ball after being cut up through the middle.
The History: Played 24; Rabbitohs 13, Cowboys 10, drawn 1. These two are quite even historically, but it is South Sydney that have taken the bikkies in eight of the past 10 match-ups dating back to 2007. The ledger is split in Townsville at six games apiece.
What Are The Odds: The Cowboys are friendless despite only losing one game at home this season. Nearly all of the money invested with Sportsbet.com.au is on the Rabbitohs. They’re $2.00 into $1.52 and should firm further. Punters all over the Bunnies at -5.5 as well.
Match Officials: Referee: Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee: Grant Atkins; Touch Judges: Dan Eastwood and Luke Potter; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy and Steve Folkes.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: It’s gut check time for North Queensland. Will they bring the heat and make their fans believe again, or will South Sydney add another feather to their cap on the road to a home semi-final? We believe field position and possession will be dominated by the visitors and a depleted Cowboys playmaking group will not be able to create enough opportunities against the league’s best defence. South Sydney by 10 points.