Cowboys v Bulldogs Preview

Cowboys v Bulldogs
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Neither of these teams has a chance of making the top eight, but you’d be mistaken for thinking their seasons are already over. While all the talk surrounds who will make the finals, there is still plenty to play for in the final three games of the regular season.

Speculation remains on the safety of Neil Henry’s job, so a Cowboys win would be the first step to finishing the season strongly and taking some positives into what will otherwise be a very long off-season.

For the players, the absence of Johnathan Thurston throws up the perfect chance to show they are more than a one-man team – a branding that has been around for a long time – but it also gives Arana Taumata an opportunity to prove he can stand on his own two feet without Thurston’s guidance.

Grant Rovelli has struggled to convince fans of his true potential in the halves, so with Thurston out for the final three games, he too has the perfect chance to show Neil Henry he is not just filling up space in the team, and is a real contender for the five-eighth position next year. With Michael Morgan and Ray Thompson having strong claims for a spot in first grade next season, these final games are do or die, sink or swim, for both Rovelli and Taumata.

A similar opportunity exists at the Bulldogs, too. Brett Kimmorley is yet to confirm what he will do next season, but it seems almost certain he won’t be offered a new contract by the club, with Kris Keating and Trent Hodkinson already signed for 2011. This means that Ben Roberts and Ben Barba will have some strong competition for spots in next year’s side. Barba is expected to replace the departing Luke Patten at fullback, but the final games of this season are nevertheless a golden opportunity for both Barba and Roberts to dominate the playmaking and send a strong signal to Kevin Moore that their positions won’t be simply surrendered to the incoming halves. Nothing brings out strong individual performances like a fight for personal survival.

While both sides have been ordinary this season, the Bulldogs look in better shape to grab a win. The Cowboys have lost their past seven of eight games, with a win against the Knights their only saving grace, and although the Bulldogs have only one win from their past five games, they have shown a lot more fight than the Cowboys.

Injuries will play a big factor in this game, with the Cowboys hurting the most. Thurston, Luke O’Donnell, Steve Southern, and Steve Rapira are all missing. Young gun Leeson Ah Mau has been superb for the Cowboys all season, but time will tell how he manages the added workload without O’Donnell next to him.

David Stagg requires only 37 tackles to reach 1000 for the season for the second consecutive year, and given he averages 46 per game, he’s almost certain to reach the target by the end of the match – a stunning achievement.

Watch out Cowboys: It’s unusual to talk up a player on the bench as one to look out for, but Ben Barba has some serious attacking power that could have a big impact on the game.

The tryscoring sensation hasn’t had as much game time as he’d like during the past two games, but bringing him off the bench could prove a masterstroke by coach Kevin Moore as Barba will be fresh against a tiring Cowboys side.

Averaging only 47 minutes per game, Barba is the side’s leading tryscorer with 14 from 18 appearances, and has 11 line-breaks, 63 tackle-breaks, and seven line-break assists to his name. But he also has eight try assists for the year – just one fewer than Brett Kimmorley, who has had double the time on the field. Considering the Cowboys concede more line-breaks than any other side (5.5 per game), this is a match-up made for the youngster.

Watch out Bulldogs:
Willie Tonga has been in great form all season, and with the added incentive of playing against his old club, he’ll be primed for a big match.

The Origin and former Kangaroos player hasn’t lost any of his footwork and is a serious threat if the opposition defence gives him too much room down the edges. Tonga is one of the most potent line-breakers in the competition, with 17 this season, and six line-break assists as well. He averages almost 100 metres a game and is the club’s leading tryscorer, crossing the line 12 times this year – not too bad when playing in a side weighed down at the bottom of the ladder. If Taumata and Rovelli can get some early ball to Tonga, he has the ability to create a two-on-one and put his winger away.

Where it will be won: In the second half. Both sides have the ammunition and motivation to get on the scoreboard and do some damage throughout the game, but the winner will be the team that can sustain that energy across the entire 80 minutes.

It sounds simple enough, but the Cowboys and Bulldogs have let far too many games slip through their fingers this season that they should have won, through switching off in the final 20 or 30 minutes of the game.

The history: Played 26; Canterbury Bankstown 17, North Queensland 9. The Cowboys have won six of the past 10 games, but the Bulldogs have grabbed the points in the past two. But perhaps the most interesting statistic is that the Bulldogs average more points at Dairy Farmers Stadium than at any other venue, with 29 per game. In fact, the boys from Belmore have won 10 of their 13 games at the Cowboys’ home ground.

Conclusion: Each of the past 10 games between these sides have been high-scoring affairs, and this one shouldn’t be any different. But with the Cowboys’ injury toll, the Bulldogs’ record up north, and the extra firepower in the Canterbury side, the Bulldogs should be good enough to win.

Match officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Gavin West; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.