Steven Ross, North Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Cowboys v Roosters
Arguably the most intriguing contest in this Saturday’s Women in League Round sees a battle between two talent-laden sides that have just started to figure things out. But just as they have come together after poor starts to 2014, both teams will soon be busted apart with State of Origin traditionally stripping the Cowboys and Roosters of major star power.
The Roosters' player-drain has unexpectedly come a week early with the club handing down a one-match ban and $20,000 fine to star halfback Mitchell Pearce, meaning the next time he plays in red, white and blue will likely be in Round 12 against Canberra, assuming he is selected in Laurie Daley's New South Wales team.
Both teams found themselves at 2-4 records after a tumultuous first six weeks of the season but much like the whole competition, the ship has since been righted.
North Queensland have taken a cosmic leap over the past three weeks and come in on the back of an impressive wire-to-wire victory over Brisbane, while back-to-back premiership talks have resurfaced for the boys from Bondi after notching three straight wins – most recently a nonchalant 30-6 trouncing of Wests Tigers last Friday.
The most notable change in both sides is their increased consistency in attack, with the Roosters averaging 19 points per game over their first six, turning that into 29 through the three-game winning streak. North Queensland's output leaps off the page over that stretch and almost doubles from 16 to 30 points per game.
While both teams are putting up large numbers, statistics show they are doing it differently. Sydney are last in offloads, but first in line breaks and line break assists which equates to good support play and quick-hitting assertive attack. Meanwhile, the Cowboys are tied for third league-wide in try assists which represents organised and well-executed structures.
In team news, the Cowboys welcome back Antonio Winterstein after a month-long absence, replacing an injured Curtis Rona. In what coach Paul Green labelled a tough decision, Ray Thompson comes back to replace halfback Robert Lui who made improvements last week. Also named last week, Tariq Sims will definitely take the field on Saturday, pushing Scott Bolton back to the bench. Ethan Lowe keeps his spot and Glenn Hall is 18th man.
For the visitors, James Maloney will fill the Pearce void at No.7 and Sonny Bill Williams slots in as the world’s biggest five-eighth. Mitchell Aubusson moves to the starting side and Daniel Mortimer is named on the bench, with Samisoni Langi the 18th man.
Watch the NRL LIVE with a 2-week free trial.
Get the NRL Digital Pass now!
Watch Out Cowboys: If this turns into an end-to-end affair, the home side will be sorry. When you face a team that breaks the line more than any other (52), you’re in for 80 of the hardest minutes all season. Pearce or no Pearce, the Roosters can break down a defensive line many different ways. Only four players in the game have double-digit line break assists to this point. Granted one of them is Pearce (12), but another is Maloney (11). They also get service from outside backs in Michael Jennings (four) and Shaun Kenny-Dowall (three) as well as big man Jared Waerea-Hargreaves (three) who always has a trick up his sleeve.
Watch Out Roosters: How much of a loss is Pearce? They still have the scoring power on paper, but can Sydney keep fluency and avoid suffocation to post a high total against a team that has conceded the third-fewest tackle breaks in the competition?
The Sydneysiders also rank worst in the NRL at putting pressure on opponents, forcing the fewest errors (83) and penalties (47) of any team in the comp. If the Cowboys are allowed to roam free and play expansively, the Roosters could easily be put to the sword by an obliging Johnathan Thurston.
Plays To Watch: North Queensland’s defensive line is one of the best when set up, but they have to be extremely wary of Sydney’s kick return where anyone in the back five can go coast-to-coast. Sydney leads the league in kick return metres, so it will need a collective effort from the Cowboys, who incidentally are the league’s best at chasing their own kicks.
Where It Will Be Won: Thurston said it best after Friday’s win over Brisbane – “I’m looking forward to the battle in the middle third with big Sammy Moa and Hargreaves up against Jimmy and Matty Scott, I’m rubbing my hands at that one.”
Again, the Cowboys are third best league-wide in missed tackles with their front row combo of Scott and Tamou missing just seven and 15 tackles all year respectively, while Roosters’ counterparts Sam Moa and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves have let through 17 and 20 respectively. If Sydney’s big boppers get tired before their Cowboys opponents, another 200-metre performance may be on the cards for Scott and points will flow for the home side.
Match Officials: Referee – Shayne Hayne; Assistant Referee – Adam Gee; Touch Judges – Russell Turner & Clayton Sharpe; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Luke Phillips.
Televised: FoxSports 1 – Live 7.30pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: The stats all point towards a North Queensland win, especially at home against a Pearce-less Roosters. A lot of questions will be asked of the new-look Sydney halves pair. How will Maloney fare on the ball? How much direction will you get out of Sonny Bill? One certainty though is the Roosters running game – you don’t put 108kg of power forward at the No.6 just to stand there and look pretty. We reckon the Roosters simply lose too much in Pearce’s absence so the Cowboys by six points in a low-scoring affair.