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Cowboys v Bulldogs
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Batten down the hatches folks: there is a cyclone approaching Townsville, with forecasts suggesting the centre will be somewhere around Dairy Farmers Stadium.
Such is the force of these two combatants coming head-to-head at this time of year it will come as no surprise to get a severe weather warning come Friday night.
The match doubles as the annual ‘Reconciliation Cup’ and kick-starts the ‘Close the Gap Round’ which is a partnership between the NRL and Oxfam, to help raise awareness around the significant gap between the life expectancies Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders and the rest of the Australian population.
The home side Cowboys are now in a dogfight in the bottom half of the eight; with just two home games remaining they know this match is critical to their premiership chances.
The second-placed Bulldogs might have a play-off spot sewn up, but a spot in the top two guarantees a second bite at the cherry should you slip up in Week 1 of the semis – and also a week off should you prevail.
The Cowboys battled hard but were eventually ground down against the Storm in Melbourne last round, a result that has them sixth but equal with four other teams. Only their impressive for-and-against has them sitting pretty at this stage.
A loss here could see them slip out of the top eight altogether – not the type of pressure the side wants going into the final few rounds even if their draw is slightly ‘easier’ than some other contenders.
They welcome back two of their stars, just when they need them, for this huge match. Lock Luke O’Donnell and centre Ashley Graham come straight back into the starting side for the Cowboys, which sees a reshuffle to the line-up from last week.
Ty Williams moves from centre to wing, with Donald Malone out of the side, while Manase Manuokafoa goes to the bench for O’Donnell.
Coach Neil Henry has also made some cosmetic changes, with Matt Scott to start at prop with Antonio Kaufusi going to the bench and Anthony Watts to start at hooker with Steve Southern on the bench.
These two selections could still be reversed, as has been the trend over the past fortnight.
The Bulldogs come into this clash after a scrappy win over Canberra. The side certainly isn’t firing on all cylinders but they are still finding a way to win.
Ben Hannant has succumbed to a hamstring injury, ruling him out for a few weeks, so Jarrad Hickey has come into the starting side at prop.
Brad Morrin is the new face on the bench.
Watch out Cowboys: The Bulldogs’ success can be traced back in part to a solid kicking game coming from both dummy-half (Michael Ennis) and from the halves (Brett Kimmorley and Ben Roberts). The ’Dogs are finding space almost 60 per cent of the time with their clearing kicks, giving the chasers a chance to be set and dominate the opening few tackles.
The Cowboys only find space 55 per cent of the time, a small but significant difference. This difference is widened when you look at the metres each team makes from the boot: The Bulldogs are gaining 642 metres a match with kicks, the Cowboys just 498 metres – the fewest in the NRL.
This would be okay if it was because they make the most metres across the ground, but that isn’t the case. As the Cowboys do not have the biggest of back threes, they can ill afford to let the Bulldogs dominate the opening tackles in each set of six. They must put pressure on the kickers and cut down the kick metres of the ’Dogs if they are to prosper.
Watch out Bulldogs: Luke O’Donnell returns for this clash with plenty of pent-up aggression after once again being robbed of a representative jersey due to injury.
Here is one individual who won’t die wondering after missing some big games in recent times; O’Donnell will leave nothing in the tank as he strives to get his side towards the finals.
In his 13 matches this season for the Cowboys he has averaged 115 metres gained. He has six line breaks to his name, two line-break assists, two try assists and four tries, plus 27 tackle breaks and 21 offloads. But it is defensively where he can really sting. Look for the lock forward to put some huge ‘hurt’ on the Bulldogs’ ball runners whenever he gets a chance.
Where it will be won: Thurston and Bowen v Kimmorley and Ennis. It comes as no surprise to hear the Cowboys’ chances revolve around the dynamic duo of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen, but it has never been more evident than in this clash.
The Bulldogs are a strong defensive team; however, they can be exploited and have shown some weaknesses in recent weeks. On the other side of the coin the Bulldogs’ attack is driven by Brett Kimmorley and Michael Ennis, two more individuals who can sniff out a gap with the best of them.
It is significant this match is part of the ‘Close the Gap’ round as this is exactly what both teams need to do to prosper… close the gaps in their defensive patterns or risk being torn apart by either of these four men.
The Bulldogs have been at their weakest around Josh Morris in recent times, with the Origin rep struggling defensively in the past few weeks. He is certainly not the worst defensive centre in the NRL but he is missing 20 per cent of his tackles and needs to improve. Kimmorley is also a ‘spot defender’ who will see plenty of traffic from Thurston’s troops.
Also watch for Thurston to force lumbering prop Jarrad Hickey to make a few tackles in succession before unleashing Bowen towards him.
The Bulldogs will head left often, considering they have scored 47 tries on the left this season compared to 25 on the right and the Cowboys have leaked 36 on the left compared to just 17 on the right.
The History: Played 25; Cowboys 9, Bulldogs 16. The Bulldogs beat the Cowboys 30-18 not that long ago in Round 16 at ANZ Stadium but the Cowboys had won the previous four encounters between the clubs prior to that meeting. While Dairy Farmers Stadium is usually a tough place to travel for some, the Bulldogs love the ground, holding a 9-3 advantage over the home side.
Conclusion: One of two great toss-of- the-coin games to open the round.
The Bulldogs have a great record at Dairy Farmers but they are yet to win the Reconciliation Cup with the first two years resulting in Cowboys wins. The Cowboys do have plenty to play for and they are at home, so they could certainly topple the high-flying blue-and-whites, so don’t be afraid to tip that way.
However, there is a reason the Bulldogs are running second… they are a formidable team who are unfazed by just about anything. The loss of Hannant is big and their form has been a little patchy, but they can easily get the job done here.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Jason Robinson; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Bill Harrigan.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (NSW & Qld); Fox Sports – Delayed 11.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.
Watch the Close the Gap TVC