Cowboys v Storm
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 8.30pm (Qld time)
HOLD onto your cowboy hats: a storm is coming.
This blockbusting clash could well be talked about as the game of the season, such are the potential mouth-watering match-ups, and it deserves a full house.
Both sides have tasted both triumph and defeat in the opening rounds. Neither likes the bitter taste of defeat, which ensures the guns will be drawn and the thunder will be booming.
The Cowboys currently sit fifth compared to the Storm in eighth but it’s only differential that separates the two clubs.
Craig Bellamy’s Storm side opened the year with a golden-point win against the Dragons before falling to the Broncos in another thriller last weekend.
They head further north, having named the same side from the Broncos game – although Sika Manu and Joseph Tomane have been added to the bench.
Centre Willie Isa will need to be successful at the judiciary today (Wednesday), fighting an ‘Unnecessary Head / Neck Contact’ charge (translation: grapple-style tackle), to take his place.
The home side has also suffered a close loss to Brisbane but bounced back last week to trounce the Wests Tigers 42-14.
With Matt Bowen and Johnathan Thurston in full swing the Cowboys (thankfully) look anything but the side that went within a whisker of winning the wooden spoon last year.
They have retained the same 17 but added Clint Amos and Shannon Hegarty to an extended bench.
Watch out Cowboys: Storm lock forward Dallas Johnson is ready to leave his mark on some Cowboy bodies.
Known for his defence, Johnson has been very impressive in the opening two games to lead the NRL tackle count with 105 tackles (52.5 a match). What is more impressive is the Queensland representative has missed just one tackle so far.
While Johnson prides himself on making plenty of tackles for his side, he likes nothing more than putting the hurt on his targets. Memo Cowboys: Do Not Run Directly At Johnson! He won’t jeopardise his strike rate by winding up unless he knows he won’t miss. If the Cowboys run into his target zone, they’ll know they’ve been hit.
Watch out Storm: It’s not often the Cowboys have the wood over an opponent in a defensive statistic but they have nailed more dominant tackles than the Melbourne outfit so far this year.
The Neil Henry influence has seemingly steeled the boys from the far north and they have reeled off 43 dominant tackles compared to the Storm’s 28.
The home side will need to continue to dominate if they want to match it with the Storm. Sure Thurston and Bowen are dangerous from anywhere on the park but they are much more dangerous when in the red zone, attacking their opponents’ line. The Storm must fight harder in contact and hit edges and spaces to avoid being dominated.
In the past few years the Storm wouldn’t be overly concerned about being out-muscled by the Cowboys but this season they’ll need to be switched on.
Where it will be won: It’s not often you can rest a game on the shoulders of a handful of players but whichever fullback outplays the other will just about help their side to the competition points.
Cowboy Matt Bowen and Storm boy Billy Slater are the keys to their sides’ attacks. That is not to discount the likes of Cameron Smith, Greg Inglis and Johnathan Thurston; it’s just to say the custodians are the ones that are going to make the most of their team-mates’ positive play.
Both players are as hard to rope in as a prize rodeo calf, thanks to their ability to accelerate while changing direction, and if they are given space it’s “goodnight”.
The kick-chase for both teams therefore must be perfect. If you don’t send a wall of defenders downfield, either player will carve you up.
Slater is averaging 101 metres gained this year and has two line breaks, two tries, 10 broken tackles, one offload and four errors.
Bowen is averaging 79 metres, has one line break, one line break assist, two tries, a try assist, 14 tackle breaks, an offload and three errors.
The History: Played 18; Cowboys 5, Storm 13. The Cowboys haven’t tasted victory over the Storm since 2006, losing four straight. Melbourne don’t have a problem travelling to the tropical north, having won seven of 10 matches between the teams at Dairy Farmers Stadium.
Conclusion: Honestly… who really knows? Both teams are potential premiers in 2009 which makes this another tough game to pick. The Cowboys are usually a better side at home but the Storm love the Townsville trip.
If the Storm lose Isa to suspension, that will dent them a little. But they never give up without a real fight.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 9.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.