Friday 7.35pm (Qld Time)
THIS massive Queensland derby game has become a regular fixture to start the season in recent years and once again we gear up for an almighty clash between ‘big brother’ Broncos and ‘little brother’ Cowboys.
Both sides enter the 2009 season with new coaches and a fresh outlook. And while competitions aren’t won in March, they’ll be desperate to start out on the front foot.
Brisbane, no longer coached by Wayne Bennett but rather by Ivan Henjak, want everyone to know they don’t need Bennett to succeed, while the Cowboys, now mentored by former Canberra coach Neil Henry, are still reeling from an embarrassing 15th-place finish in 2008 which included a club record 13 straight losses.
The Broncos’ trial form has been reasonable. They defeated the Gold Coast Titans (24-18) and the Canberra Raiders (30-16) before losing to the Melbourne Storm (20-6).
The side has a different look about it for this match, especially in the three-quarter line.
New recruit Israel Folau is joined in the centres by youngster Alex Glenn, captain of the Broncos’ 2008 Toyota Cup grand final side, while the flanks are also manned by young debutants in Antonio Winterstein and Jharal Yow Yeh.
Yow Yeh in particular could be a sensation, as he scored an impressive 27 tries in the under-20s last year.
Other new recruits to feature in the line-up include Aaron Gorrell at hooker, Ben Te’o in the back row and Lagi Setu on the bench.
The Cowboys have had an interrupted trial period due to the flooding up north but managed to get games in against the Warriors (lost 28-32) and the Penrith Panthers (drew 18-18).
They welcome back Matt Bowen to the big time following a year off with injury and have also included new recruits Manase Manuokafoa and Antonio Kaufusi in their forward pack and Willie Tonga in the centres.
Watch out Broncos: One of the forgotten men amongst the Cowboys’ unit is lock Luke O’Donnell. A few years ago O’Donnell was a representative regular before major injury put him at the back of the list once more. Now, with a season behind him since the major drama, O’Donnell is primed to return his game to the stratosphere. His defence can be bruising and his runs can be first class; the Broncos will underestimate him at their peril.
Watch out Cowboys: He might be a little rusty following minor knee surgery during the off-season but skipper Darren Lockyer is still world class. Lockyer has a baby backline to look after in this clash but the extra responsibility will no doubt steel him for a big performance. It’s been a long off-season for the five-eighth.
Memories of the final-minute loss to Melbourne in last year’s finals and the World Cup final loss to New Zealand are still burning him up. A win here won’t erase those heartbreakers but it will help him put them in the back of the memory bank.
Don’t be surprised to see Lockyer break the line in this clash – despite the fact he didn’t make a single line break for the Broncos last season.
Where it will be won: With the likes of Johnathan Thurston and Bowen in the Cowboys side and Lockyer and Peter Wallace directing the shots for the Broncos, you could make a case the match will be won in the halves. But the reality is the forward packs need to first give their men some space to weave their magic.
On paper the Cowboys’ forwards look stronger, with the likes of Carl Webb, Aaron Payne, Manuokafoa, Kaufusi and O’Donnell in the mix but don’t discount the Broncos. Corey Parker and Sam Thaiday won’t take a backward step and Te’o, Gorrell and Joel Clinton still have plenty to prove.
Whichever pack stands up to be counted will give heir side a huge edge.
The History: Played 25; Broncos 19, Cowboys 4, drawn 2. Obviously the Cowboys took a long time to get going against their Queensland rivals and while they won three on the trot against Brisbane in 2006-2007 the past three clashes have gone to the Broncos. At Suncorp there have only been four matches between the sides and the honours are shared two each.
Conclusion: Brisbane are favoured to win by most, taking into account last year’s form. But without their main backline strike weapons they won’t have it all their own way. If the Bowen-Thurston combination isn’t too rusty the Cowboys are a very good chance to start the year off with an away victory. Don’t be afraid to back the underdog here.
Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Tony De Las Heras; Sideline Officials – Gerard Sutton & Steve Carrall; Video ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live from 7.30pm (Qld); delayed from 9.30pm (NSW). Fox Sports 2 – delayed 1am.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.