'Pride is on the line': CowboysRoosters v Cowboys
After 25 rounds of gruelling football, it all comes down to this – 80 minutes of bone-crunching drama where the 34 players involved would all rather be sunning it up on a beach in Vanuatu.
But rather than sipping on a cocktail in a lush resort, these blokes will be out on the Sydney Football Stadium turf in front of a healthy crowd farewelling one of the best footballers of the modern era in Craig Fitzgibbon.
After 11 seasons in the top grade Fitzgibbon will leave our shores for the green grass of the English Super League and his Roosters have one final chance to give him the send-off he deserves.
Of course, ready to spoil the party are the North Queensland Cowboys who are still smarting from being bumped from the competition by Brisbane last round.
They too will have something to play for.
But who will go into the off-season with at least something small to smile about and who will start ‘Mad Monday’ with a bitter taste in their mouths?
The major change for the Roosters is Anthony Minichiello’s move to fullback, after returning from injury at five-eighth – this shifts Sam Perrett into the centres and Ben Jones back to the halves.
Willie Mason will start from the bench, with Nate Myles shifted into the starting line-up.
For the Cowboys, John Williams will miss the final match of the year – he is replaced by rookie Donald Malone for just his second game of the season – while Travis Burns returns to five-eighth after Grant Rovelli broke his leg.
Shane Tronc will play his 125th match for the Cowboys, but it will also be his last as the giant front-rower will link with Wakefield next season.
The Roosters appear glued to the bottom of the ladder but a win here would allow them to avoid the embarrassment of picking up the dreaded wooden spoon – assuming Cronulla don’t overcome South Sydney.
Watch out Cowboys: Anthony Minichiello’s move from the halves to fullback should have been made weeks ago. Everyone knew it was destined to fail, but Brad Fittler waited until Round 26 to pull the trigger on this one – having Minichiello at the back is an immeasurable improvement on having him in no man’s land.
At full fitness ‘the Count’ is the best kick-returner in the game – in his last uninterrupted season Minichiello averaged nearly 170 metres per game, more than any other fullback in the competition. With the Roosters struggling for metres all season this would be an enormous advantage.
The other great danger for the Cowboys this week is the continued absence of injured fullback Matt Bowen. Without Bowen and injured hooker Aaron Payne, the Cowboys are missing two thirds of their attacking strike force – the only weapon left is captain Johnathan Thurston. Bowen is safe at the back and create opportunities for himself and others in attack. He cannot be replaced.
Watch out Roosters: Statistically the Roosters have a truly awful attack. They rank second last in line-breaks, metres gained, tries scored, points scored and tackle-breaks. They should be the easiest team in the competition to defend against because of how few questions they throw at teams – but that honour goes to Cronulla.
Still, if they are to pull off a great escape, their attack will need to improve… especially when you consider their defensive stats are even worse. They sit dead last in points, tries and metres conceded – something that will encourage the Cowboys’ left-side attack.
Maestro Thurston loves to hit the left edge, using Willie Tonga and Carl Webb to great effect. North Queensland have scored 27 tries in the left corridor compared to 18 on the right, where Tonga and Webb are most dangerous. Tonga is also coming off a big game, where he ran for over 100 metres and scored a try.
Rooster Sam Perrett has been picked at right centre and while he is a rock solid player, he is playing his first game in the centres all year – it will be a tough defensive assignment for him to adjust alongside the erratic Shaun Kenny-Dowall.
Where it will be won: This game will be won by the coaches. Finding the energy to deliver 100 per cent in the final round of competition, when the finals are desperately out of reach, is a place no team wants to find itself.
There can be no more difficult task than trying to motivate a team for what is essentially one of the least important of their careers. Neil Henry is one of the best up-and-coming coaches in the NRL and he will be gutted to have missed out on September footy with such a strong roster, while Brad Fittler could be presiding over his final ever match as a head coach.
Whoever instils enough passion and emotion into this game and manages to pick their team up for one last game will finish the stronger on the scoreboard.
The history: Played 23; Roosters 19, Cowboys 4. The Roosters have won eight of nine at the SFS. Their stranglehold over North Queensland knows few bounds – although Thurston’s men got the chocolates in Round 15.
Conclusion: It might sound crazy, but emotion could get the Roosters home here. It is the last game in Bondi for two Roosters legends – captain Craig Fitzgibbon and coach Brad Fittler. They want to avoid the spoon and they want to send two club greats off with a win.
North Queensland have a far superior team and all logic points to a Cowboys victory – but the Roosters have so much to play for. If they can’t turn up this weekend, then they well and truly deserve to pick up the wooden spoon.
Match officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Luke Phillips; Video Ref – Russell Smith.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.