Nicholas Janzen, NRL.com
Cowboys v Tigers
For North Queensland this is the most important game of their season to date. If the Cowboys win they’re through to the semi-finals – if they lose they’re more than likely about to embark on an off-season holiday.
It’s been a year of peaks and troughs for North Queensland in 2013. Throughout the year they enjoyed winning runs mixed almost evenly with losing streaks – it just so happens they’ve been able to find their finest form when it has mattered most. The Cowboys enter this crucial game with the Tigers on a five-match winning streak – and with victories against the Rabbitohs, Panthers, Titans, Knights and Sharks in recent weeks. If they win here, they’ll most likely finish in eighth position (assuming the Knights account for the Eels), with 12 wins and 12 losses through the regular season.
The Wests Tigers, meanwhile, have suffered what some might call an annus horribilis. It’s been a horror campaign under new coach Mick Potter. They’re currently in 14th position with just seven wins from 23 matches – and the poor on-field form is just the beginning. This season has seen boardroom tension reach record levels, and arguably their greatest player of all time, Benji Marshall, has decided to walk away. This is his final match in the orange, black and white – and it’s a game that is about pride and pride alone for his Tigers. The team has lost seven of their past eight matches – and most are expecting that poor form to continue against the Cowboys in tropical Townsville.
For the Cowboys, Scott Bolton will start in the front row for only the second time this season as co-captain Matthew Scott’s replacement. Scott has a broken middle finger. Following Bolton’s promotion, Ashton Sims returns to the interchange bench.
A victory for the Cowboys will equal their second-longest winning streak in club history and also provide a fitting send-off for games record holder Matthew Bowen, who will run out in front of his home crowd for the last time.
For the Tigers there is only a minor change to the side that lost to the Rabbitohs last week, with Sauaso Sue named in jersey No.17 and Matt Bell named in No.19.
Watch Out Cowboys: The Tigers were far from ordinary in the first half against the Rabbitohs last week. At 18-0 after just 15 minutes it looked like the boilover of the season was about to take place. Alas, the Rabbitohs came bounding back, eventually claiming the match 32-18, but the signs are there that the Tigers still possess attacking ability. James Tedesco, David Nofoaluma and Benji Marshall (with a combined total of two try assists, 18 tackle-breaks, two line-breaks, a line-break assist and a try last week) need to be watched closely.
Watch Out Tigers: In 2013 the Wests Tigers have made just 310 ‘good chases’ from kicks – the second-worst record in the league behind the lowly Parramatta Eels. Not only is it a sign of a lack of intensity and effort, it’s an open door for the North Queensland back three of Bowen, Ulugia and Winterstein, alongside centres Tate and Linnett, to launch attacking raids. If the Tigers’ defence doesn’t support the kicking games of Anasta, Marshall and Farah, it’ll quickly turn into too tough a task for Mick Potter’s men in Townsville.
Plays To Watch: Expect the Cowboys to be ‘all systems go’ in attack in this one. North Queensland have used 999 decoy runs so far this season (the most in the NRL) and as such each runner gives the likes of Thurston and Bowen plenty of creative options. The secret to their recent success, however, rests with their forwards – the team runs for the second-most average number of metres per game with 1418.8, and a lot of that comes down to the dominance of their big boppers.
The Tigers, meanwhile, will look to throw the football around, as they did at times successfully against South Sydney last Friday night. Departing superstar Benji Marshall will be looking to go out with a bang, too – surely he’ll throw up one final footballing feast. A few flick passes, a show-and-go or two, and at least one shake-and-bake please, sir!
Key Match-Up: The battle of retirees – Bowen and Marshall. With both about to walk off the world’s toughest rugby league stage, each will be desperate to impress and bring the crowd to their feet one last time. But who will do it more consistently and with a greater level of success?
The diminutive crowd-pullers showed they’ve still got their full bag of tricks last match, with Bowen particularly instrumental in his team’s win against Cronulla. Interestingly, Bowen is poised to become only the second player in NRL history to record 1,000 career tackle-breaks – he requires just nine more. Marshall, meanwhile, has his place in the record books as a title-winning playmaker – and he’s scored the seventh-most tries by any Balmain, Western Suburbs and/or Tigers player, with 76.
Where It Will Be Won: The Tigers’ forwards. They need to stop the Cowboys’ big guns. Sure, their jobs will be made easier with the sidelining of Kangaroos prop Matt Scott, but they still need to deal with the likes of James Tamou, Gavin Cooper and Tariq Sims – and they need to make inroads for themselves.
The Tigers pack is arguably the least effective in the competition, too – their team runs for just 1227 metres per match (last in the NRL). But if they aim up, Marshall and co. are a chance of causing an upset.
The History: Played 27; Tigers 15, Cowboys 12. The Tigers have won nine of their past 11 games against the Cowboys, too. Perhaps their most memorable match-up occurred in the 2005 grand final, when the Tigers finished 30-18 winners. Could Marshall, with that image in his mind, conjure one last magic trick here – and put the Cowboys to the sword and end their title dreams once again?
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Grant Atkins & Jeff Younis; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & 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 Wests Tigers 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: We’re not completely willing to rule out the Tigers here. The magic man in their No.6 jersey might just want one last highlight-package performance – and one final victory in Tigers colours. Still, we reckon the Cowboys – desperate to secure victory and qualify for the finals – should be too good. North Queensland by 12 points.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.