Ben Blaschke,, NRL.com
Cowboys v Roosters
The Sydney Roosters make the long trek up north this weekend as they look to continue their impressive start to the season by knocking over the misfiring Cowboys.
It’s hard to know exactly what to make of North Queensland right now. At the start of the year they were widely touted as genuine premiership contenders given a roster that boasts Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen in the key playmaking positions; a lethal right edge boasting Brent Tate and Ashley Graham; and Australian Test props in Matt Scott and James Tamou.
But with four wins from nine starts, it hasn’t gone to plan as of yet. Inconsistency has long been the bane of the Cowboys and they have again struggled to find repeat performances from week to week – particularly away from home. Only once have they won two games in a row when they downed Canberra and Parramatta in Rounds 7 and 8 but even then they were fortunate to beat the Eels 14-10.
Most surprising has been the side’s struggles with the ball in hand. Usually lethal when on song, they currently rank 11th for total points scored in 2013 while Bowen has been well below his scintillating best having averaged just 66 metres and contributed a single try and single line-break.
There are no such concerns at the Roosters who took a few weeks to warm their way into the season but are now considered a real premiership threat with four wins on the trot.
The arrival of Sonny Bill Williams, James Maloney and Michael Jennings has added attacking threat across the park and it comes as no great surprise that they have scored more points than any other side in 2013 with 224 at almost 25 per game.
Yet it is their defence that is their greatest asset. In an era when attacking football generally dominates, the Roosters have conceded a miserly 86 points this season (less than 10 points per game). Incredibly, they have kept opponents scoreless on three separate occasions and have conceded just six points in each of their past two wins over Penrith and Manly.
That’s the real test for North Queensland this week. They’re sure to click into gear eventually but even if they do, can they breach this Roosters’ brick wall defence?
The Cowboys have added enforcer Jason Taumalolo to a five-man bench for this week’s clash, with one player to be omitted.
Roosters coach Trent Robinson has named the same side that downed Manly on Monday but expect that to change with prop Jared Waerea-Hargreaves facing between five and seven weeks on the sidelines for his high shot on George Rose.
Watch Out Cowboys: The Roosters are lethal on their edges and boast plenty of threat on both sides of the field, but although Sonny Bill Williams looms large on the right, it has been their left side that has been most lethal this season.
With James Maloney taking control since arriving from the Warriors in the off-season, their left-edge combination of Maloney, Mitchell Aubusson, Michael Jennings and Daniel Tupou has scored 15 tries and made 23 line-breaks between them (compared with 11 tries and 17 line-breaks on the right).
Watch Out Roosters: The Roosters’ big men will face arguably their toughest test of the season so far against a North Queensland front row that continues to dominate through the middle. While execution has let the Cowboys down this year, front-rowers Matt Scott and James Tamou have been exceptional with an average 148 metres and 143 metres respectively.
Plays To Watch: The beauty of having a player of Michael Jennings’ calibre out wide is that it makes defences think twice about giving him too much room to move. The Roosters have capitalised on this in 2013 by favouring the lead runner – usually Mitch Aubusson – when they head to the left edge. James Maloney will drift left with Jennings putting the foot down out the back, but rather than hit his centre Maloney will throw a flat short-ball to Aubusson who will look to steam through a gap or create space for his outside men should he make a half-break. Both of these scenarios played out in the Roosters’ win over the Dragons three weeks ago, with Aubusson and Jennings both scoring within a few first-half minutes of one another.
Key Match-Up: Johnathan Thurston v James Maloney. An established star versus a rising star yet it is Johnathan Thurston who finds himself under pressure to take control in this clash.
With North Queensland struggling to get their attack going, Thurston is one man who can take it upon himself to turn their season around. His opposite number, meanwhile, is a key reason for the Roosters’ resurgence in 2013 and he will be keen to maintain his good form with Origin approaching.
Where It Will Be Won: On the edges, where the Roosters are lethal and the Cowboys have often struggled to stay strong when defending their line.
But they say that a good attacking side starts with a good defensive side so if North Queensland can negate the visitors’ main strength this week it might well pay dividends for them at the other end of the field too. It will be an interesting battle.
The History: Played 28; Roosters 20, Cowboys 8. The Roosters might have the all-time record well and truly covered, but amazingly North Queensland have won five of their past six encounters up against the tricolours.
Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Adam Gee; Video Referees – Paul Mellor & Neil Wharton.
NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Cowboys v Roosters clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm AEST.
The Way We See It: It’s hard to go past the Roosters at the moment. With such resolute defence and attacking brilliance across the park they are rolling along beautifully and will head to North Queensland supremely confident. On paper at least, the Cowboys have every chance of winning this game and they are certainly a far tough proposition at 1300Smiles Stadium, but they haven’t shown enough yet this year to deserve favoritism here. Roosters by eight points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats