Steven Ross, North Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Cowboys v Sea Eagles
It is testament to the closeness of the 2014 NRL season that after 26 Rounds of competition, the battle for the J.J. Giltinan Shield could come down to points differential.
Thursday night’s clash between the Roosters and Rabbitohs is the first step in solving the equation, with the winner joining Manly at the top of the mountain and surpassing them on percentage.
It could all be for naught if Manly snatch an away victory in Townsville on Saturday night, but after a little closer inspection, that may be less likely than first thought. For their standing on the ladder, it is surprising to see that the Silvertails actually have a losing record (5-6) away from their Brookvale fortress, in which they have lost just the one game all year.
With their come-from-behind win in the dying stages of last Sunday, Manly kept the Cowboys’ heart beating on an unlikely top-four berth. But their feathered friends will immediately become foes, and if the home side does get the win here they will then turn to the men from across the ditch to replicate last week’s form in Penrith on Sunday evening. If all falls into place the northerners will sneak in for their second ever top-four finish on percentage, registering a club-record 10 straight home wins in the process.
Both clubs lacked energy in their last outings, but in front of what should be a near-capacity crowd both will certainly sense the occasion and deliver one of the very best games of the season.
Not many changes for this one, with the Cowboys naming an unchanged 17 since Monday night, and Manly returning Brenton Lawrence to the front row, with Jason King moving back to the bench. Tom Symonds also starts at lock for the injured Jamie Buhrer with Justin Horo starting in the second row.
Watch Out Cowboys: It has been argued that Manly have had a little less to play for over the past few weeks, but there should be no-holds-barred in a make-or-break last game that will dictate their minor premiership. There is no player we expect to play with more fire than of the league’s best ball-runners, New Zealand international Keiran Foran. He has broken 16 tackles over his past four games out of the five-eighth position and with opposite Robert Lui missing nine tackles in his last three, Toovey would be smart to isolate that individual match-up.
Watch Out Sea Eagles: Defence is where Manly have let themselves down of late, conceding 40, 37 and 31 missed tackles in their past three games against the Titans, Eels and Panthers respectively. Both of the Titans (worst missed tackle count of the season) and Eels (third-worst) games were away from Brookvale, which does not bode well ahead of the toughest road trip in the NRL. Compounding their defensive slump is the possibility of hooker Matt Ballin missing Saturday’s clash despite being named. Ballin is the team’s leading tackler by an average of almost 12 over Anthony Watmough (31 tackles), and may sit out with a corked thigh. Prior to the past three games, Manly had only conceded an average of 28 misses per game, so they will really need to tighten that area on the eve of the semi finals.
Plays To Watch: In their Round 7 encounter back at Central Coast Stadium, every single Cowboys’ 21 points (except for a Kyle Feldt try) came on the right side of the field, while every one of Manly’s 26 came on the left. Feldt has since shifted to the right to join forces with fellow inexperienced three-quarter Tautau Moga. Having only played two games together as an edge combo and not particularly know for their defensive prowess as individuals, this serves as an official heads-up – look out young ones! While Jamie Buhrer’s injury will take strike away from their left side, fullback Brett Stewart will be sweeping out the back, Jorge Taufua and Steve Matai will be manning the edges and Keiran Foran will be picking exactly who he wants to hit the hole – and will hit his target more often than not.
Where It Will Be Won: In order for both teams’ masterful halves to make an imprint, their forwards first need to pave the way. Manly’s pack broke even against a visiting Penrith last week, so they will need to step up big time against a home Cowboys who should have gotten over their week-long flu suffered after coming back from Sydney. Who would have thought that the Cowboys’ most dangerous forward at this time of year would be journeyman Ashton Sims? Starting 2014 on the bench behind two Test props, Sims led the pack over the last four games, running for over 120 run metres, with 174 and 164 in tough games against Souths and Cronulla recently. With Matt Scott and Jason Taumalolo doing their thing every week and James Tamou rounding back into form, if the Cowboys are to get the win it will be on the back of those four.
The History: Played 22; Sea Eagles 15, Cowboys 7. Manly have taken home the past six encounters and not many have been close; two of which have come with major controversy which has inspired talks of a southern conspiracy by Thurston as well as that classic ‘Pitt Street’ line by coach Paul Green earlier this year.
What Are The Odds:
Sportsbet reports this match as the best betting game of the round, and it seems punters are divided 50/50 in who to back. Either side to win 1-12 looks to be the way to go in this one. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee – Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee – Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Michael Wise; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Patten.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: The Cowboys have already started a public call to arms, and there is no reason any less than 20,000 should attend. If they can get almost 12,000 on Monday night against Cronulla, 8,000 is not too much of a stretch. Considering the opponent and what is at stake for the Cowboys, we may just see a few tin foil hats in the stands as well. The brigade needs to come in full force on and off the field if they are to stop an always-classy Manly outfit, but if North Queensland can shut down the left side of the field, their big guns will likely prove too powerful. Cowboys by 4 points in another heart-stopper.