Round 15 Saturday evening football kicks off with the ‘bottom-of-the-table’ clash between the 15th-placed Cowboys and 16th-placed Storm, something no-one would have predicted at the beginning of the year.
Origin stars like Thurston, Tonga, Slater, Smith etc don’t belong in teams at the foot of the ladder, yet for various reasons that is precisely where they find themselves.
Luckily for the Cowboys, they have the chance to move back up the list; but as we all know, the Melbourne boys will be anchored to last place for the rest of the year.
North Queensland kept their faint finals hopes flickering by beating the Raiders last weekend but they need to continue to roll here or it will be for nought.
Still six competition points away from the eighth-placed Roosters, the visiting side has to take advantage of the Storm’s lack of motivation and get a win.
With several Origin stars on both teams looking to back up, the true make-up of the line-ups won’t be known till game day.
At this stage Billy Slater, Greg Inglis, Cooper Cronk, Cameron Smith and Brett White have all been named to back up for Melbourne, which sees Justin O’Neill, Chase Stanley, Luke Kelly, Rory Kostjasyn and Robbie Rochow all make way after the loss to the Roosters.
However, Craig Bellamy could easily recall some of the youngsters to the side.
The Cowboys are sweating big time on the availability of Johnathan Thurston, Willie Tonga and Matt Scott. They are likely to need all three to keep their 2010 title aspirations alive – especially given the three-week suspension dished out to Luke Douglas for his spear tackle in Origin II.
Should all play, Ashley Graham moves to the wing from centre, Michael Morgan moves from half to five-eighth, Steve Rapira and Leeson Ah Mau move to the bench while Shannon Gallant, Ben Harris, Isaak Ah Mau and Dane Hogan miss out.
Watch out Storm:
He has four line-breaks for the year – three from dummy-half where he picks his moments wisely.
He also has three line-break assists, a try assist and two tries. A terrier-style of player, Watts will be giving his all to the death.
Watch out Cowboys: It’s been a huge week for Greg Inglis and if he backs up in this game he could run amok.
If he doesn’t back up the Storm are still going to attack to his usual left side, because the Cowboys have leaked a whopping 32 tries on this side of the field compared to 18 on the right.
The brittle North Queensland side really need to be stronger defensively if they are to make a miracle run to the finals, and it starts with the edge defenders.
Where it will be won: This game will come down to the big name players; which ones play, and how they approach it.
With seven players in the Queensland side expected to back up, the result on Wednesday night could certainly factor into this game. If the Maroons win, the boys will be celebrating a fifth straight series win – and perhaps the Storm contingent might psychologically clock off?
The Cowboys trio should be well aware they need to win this club game and hopefully as such they’ll be switched on and ready.
Each team also has a New South Welshman but their disappointment (assuming a loss) shouldn’t be too crucial. If the Maroons lose, then all seven players will be trying to ‘get back on the horse’ in this game, which could be bad news for the Cowboys.
Of course this is all speculation into the players’ mindsets… but imagine trying to back up a few days after the most intense Origin encounter, knowing the game meant nothing for your team… It’s a tough mental barrier to overcome.
The history: Played 21; Storm 16, Cowboys 5. It’s now seven wins in a row for the Storm over the Cowboys, including a 34-6 win earlier this season in Townsville.
The average winning margin for the Storm in those seven games is 20.2 points, and you have to go back to 2006 to find a Cowboys victory.
Conclusion: Without the final team lists it is hard to pick a definitive favourite, although the Storm certainly has the wood on the Cowboys in recent times.
Playing at home helps Melbourne and if everybody backs up they have the better side. But the Cowboys are half a hope if Thurston can fire.
Wait till the last minute to make a pick, but if you still can’t decide, stick with the home team for safety.
Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Bernard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Ricky McFarlane & Adam Devcich; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.