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Broncos v Cowboys
Suncorp Stadium
Friday 7.35pm (Qld time)

If you are a Queenslander, living north of the border in tropical Queensland, then you can’t possibly be in a better place to start your footy year.

The now-traditional opening of the NRL season (even if it’s an hour behind the NSW game thanks to daylight savings… or lack thereof) never disappoints and signifies a new year’s battle between two of the three Queensland powerhouse teams.

Many pundits are tipping the Broncos will miss the finals for the first time in 19 years, which in itself provides great motivation to start well. Meanwhile, the Cowboys have been massive underachievers for the past two seasons, failing to qualify for end-of-year footy, which also grates at their squad.

Brisbane’s trial form consisted of a solid 24-12 win over Melbourne, a 32-24 win over Canberra and a 30-20 win over Redcliffe, giving them some nice momentum.

They have picked some youngsters like Gerard Beale in the centres and Corey Norman at fullback (no Karmichael Hunt, remember) – the next line of stars in the Brisbane production line.

The Cowboys on the other hand started the trials with a 28-4 loss to the Wests Tigers, and then fell 28-6 to the Warriors before picking up a 22-4 win over the Gold Coast.

Ty Williams is officially taking the injured Matt Bowen’s place at fullback and Willie Mason looks set to get a start from the bench, barring a late cull by coach Neil Henry.

Watch out Broncos: The Cowboys’ bench, whichever way they choose to go, looks set to have some real impact. Anthony Watts brings utility value as he can play hooker, in the halves or even out wide. But it’s the five big units named which could pose a problem for the Broncos.

Steve Rapira, Willie Mason, Manase Manuokafoa, Carl Webb and James Tamou are all wrecking machines when they have an ‘on’ day and when they fire it can draw curtains on the opposition.

Two of them will probably miss out, but those who play will be well aware of the competition behind them for spots, making their impact potentially even more damaging.

Watch out Cowboys:
Youth brings inexperience, but it also brings exuberance. The Broncos’ squad is certainly less imposing on paper than previous seasons – but when the likes of Steve Renouf and Darren Lockyer started playing for the Broncos they looked raw then, too. Norman at fullback, Denan Kemp on the wing, Beale at centre… they might seem a little thin but essentially these kids are playing for their lives. They want to be NRL players, and you don’t get the chance forever. If they can overcome the nerves and play their natural games (not easy in front of a packed house), they could prove very dangerous – especially given the Cowboys will know very little about them.

Mitchell Dodds and Matt Gillett are others to push more established first graders out of the side. They will know it takes a good showing to stay there.

Where it will be won: The Johnathan Thurston- Darren Lockyer show is the crucial spectacle in this match. Two Queensland legends on opposite sides of the coin will have the most influence on their side’s chance at victory.

The Cowboys notoriously struggle without Thurston hitting his straps; he’ll need to be at his best.

For the Broncos, their young, less-imposing forward pack will need to gain inspiration from their skipper. He will be pleading with his engine room to create space so he can weave his magic, and if they do, the old dog still has plenty of tricks.

Without the help of Karmichael Hunt this year, Lockyer and his scrum-base partner Peter Wallace need to create more. Both Lockyer and Thurston love to switch the attack to the blind side, so defence lines need to be awake even should the ball appear to be heading away from them.

And if the Broncos’ video session didn’t contain at least one reference to Thurston’s ‘show-and-go’ then the coaching staffers at Red Hill have been asleep for five years.

The History: Played 27; Broncos 21, Cowboys 4, drawn 2. The Broncos obviously have the wood on the Cowboys in the overall stats and they have also won the past five matches against the Cowboys.

However, at Suncorp the ledger is fairly close, with Brisbane leading 3-2 from five matches. Last season the corresponding game was decided by a solitary point and the return match had just six in it, such was the closeness of the sides.

Conclusion: The smell of a close-fought crackerjack match is in the air. Thurston gives the Cowboys a real hope of starting the year with a win, as he loves a big game atmosphere. But the baby Broncos will be pumped to give their fans an almighty first-up showing.

If the Brisbane forward pack can aim up then they can manufacture victory; if not, Thurston’s class will win the day.

Match officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Phil Haines; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live from 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW). Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 1am Sat.
Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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