Finals football comes early in Melbourne as two sides who are expected to take part in the post-season battle it out for positions in the top eight.
The Storm may have fallen to the table-topping Dragons last week but they showed enough grit to prove they should still be good enough to nab a position in the top four.
They probably only need one more victory over the final five weeks to ensure a place somewhere in the top eight but Craig Bellamy’s men are after a home final so expect to see them at their best for this blockbuster.
The Cowboys turned around a worrying form line last Friday night to demolish the Titans, pushing them back in to sixth spot and in a good position to consolidate. This game probably represents their last chance to make a push for a top-four berth but is also important as they are already equal on competition points with the eighth-placed sides and just a win in front of the ninth-placed Wests Tigers and 10th-placed Broncos.
While they are unlikely to fall out of the top eight with a loss they could easily drop to eighth and be joined by the above-mentioned clubs.
The home side Storm has lost powerful forward Sika Manu to a season-ending leg injury but thankfully former representative star Ryan Hoffman returns to take his place.
The only other change from last weekend’s tough loss is the return of Adam Blair on the bench in place of Hep Cahill.
The Cowboys have named a few changes to the starting line-up that hit the ground against the Titans – although coach Neil Henry could easily pull the same last-minute changes he did last Friday night.
Anthony Watts has once again been named to start at hooker, which sees Grant Rovelli revert back to five-eighth, Steve Southern move back to lock, while Manase Manuokafoa moves to the bench.
Matt Scott has once again been named to start for Antonio Kaufusi, while Travis Burns has been added as an extra man on the bench.
Watch out Storm: While the Cowboys’ attacking unit is run by Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen, it is the little-known winger John Williams, or the ‘Wolfbrother’, who is making plenty of waves this season.
Williams leads the Cowboys in line breaks with 11 for the season and he is averaging 93 metres a match, even though he isn’t the biggest winger in the competition. He has 10 tries so far and odds are he’ll have more before the season is out.
Speaking of tries, keep an eye on Grant Rovelli and Manase Manuokafoa when they get close to the line. They are the only semi- or regular Cowboys without a try for the year – and time is running out to get off the dreaded doughnut!
Watch out Cowboys: This match shapes as the perfect one for Billy Slater to run amok chasing short kicks for tries.
Slater’s acceleration is hard to contain and he is arguably the competition’s best chaser of chip and grubber kicks, something the Cowboys have trouble defusing. The North Queensland boys are ranked equal last at defusing chip kicks, successfully cleaning up just half of those thrown at them, and second last in the NRL at taking care of grubber kicks.
The good news is they have managed to keep their mistakes away from the try line and are one of the better teams in the NRL at stopping tries from kicks with just 11 against for the year. But defending the Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith arsenal of short kicks is a whole new predicament.
Where it will be won: This game will come down to the battle of the left-edge attacks and therefore the right-edge defence.
Both sides are hugely successful in attack on their left edge and will continue to attack to their strengths. If you look at a rugby league field from end to end and split it into five areas (left side, left edge, centre, right edge, right side) you can get a feel for where teams are most prolific.
Both the Storm and the Cowboys have scored more tries on the left edge than the other four areas this season. For the Cowboys, they have managed an impressive 26 tries this year on the left edge, a little better than the Storm who have 20 tries. But while the visitors have scored more tries on the left edge than the Storm it is defence in the same area which gives the Melbourne a significant edge.
They have allowed just four tries all year by opposition teams on the left edge (which is up against their right-side defenders) which means the Cowboys’ left-edge attack will need to be at its absolute best to continue their fruitful earnings.
The Cowboys’ defence in the same area has been far from stiff, leaking 20 tries for the season. With this knowledge you can be certain the Storm will send plenty of traffic to the left fringes over and over again.
The History: Played 19; Storm 14, Cowboys 5. The Storm beat North Queensland 26-12 earlier this year in Townsville to make it five straight against Cowboys. The Cowboys are yet to find a way to win at Olympic Park in the six times they have travelled to the Victorian capital.
Conclusion: While the Cowboys showed great form to bust the Titans’ undefeated home streak last week, the Storm were pretty impressive in defeat against the Dragons also.
Melbourne are always a tougher proposition at Olympic Park and will start favourites but if the Cowboys duo of Bowen and Thurston get cranking again they are certainly a chance of an upset win.
Stay with the Storm if you are tipping well but with time running out take a serious look at the Cowboys if you need an upset.
Match officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Chris James; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.