Broncos v Cowboys
Suncorp Stadium
Friday 7.30pm (Qld)

Cue the fireworks! The NRL season is upon us and there is no better way to kick it off than the now annual local Queensland derby of the Broncos and Cowboys. Forget the fact neither of these teams featured in the finals last year (the first time since 1991 for Brisbane): this game will be a cracker as both sides look to get off on the front foot and get one over their rivals.

The Broncos have had an interesting past few weeks to say the least. Gone is head coach Ivan Henjak and in comes Anthony Griffin, a man with tremendous raps on him, with minor grade premierships and a grand finals berth with the Brisbane 2008 Toyota Cup team in 2008. Adding an extra bit of spice to this clash, word is Griffin – who was Henjak’s assistant – was being sounded out as a possible replacement for Cowboys coach Neil Henry should he not fire his team up in 2011.

The Cowboys have been out of the finals for three years in a row now and Henry has been at the helm for two of those disappointing seasons. Last year they won just five games.

It certainly gives us a cracking start to 2011.

The Broncos will start the year without injured stars Justin Hodges and Ben Hannant, which means Sam Thaiday will push up to prop for Hannant and unknown centre Jack Reed will make his debut. While one train of thought is playing your first game in front of a packed house would be nerve-wracking, Cowboys mentor Henry has gone on record saying it is an advantage for youngsters, as it helps them to get fired up. While Lockyer and Peter Wallace are an established halves pairing, Reed is joined in the centres by Gerard Beale plus Jharal Yow Yeh and Dane Gagai (another debutant) are on the wings and Josh Hoffman is fullback – a particularly inexperienced back five.

Will Tupou gets the nod at centre for the Cowboys with Brent Tate sidelined, Ray Thompson will partner Thurston in the halves and new recruit Glenn Hall starts in the second row. Tireless defender Dallas Johnson is a welcome addition at lock. Ben Jones and Tariq Sims (last year’s NYC Player of the Year) are a chance to debut for the Cowboys after being named on a five-man bench.

Watch Out Broncos: Cowboys fullback Matt Bowen should by now be ready to return to the form of yesteryear – back when he was one of the most feared attacking weapons in the game.

Following some major knee problems Bowen played the back half of last season but was nowhere near his dynamic self. Some further rest and a full pre-season have given Bowen the confidence to go all-out once more – and the result could be devastating for the Broncos. When Bowen was last at his absolute best – season 2007 – he topped the league with 22 tries and was miles ahead on line-breaks with 32. If he gets his mojo working with Thurston, the show will be worth the ticket price alone.

Danger Sign: If the Broncos start to slip off simple one-on-one tackles it is a sure sign their defensive effectiveness remains substandard. For years they have been able to make up for a mountain of missed tackles with decent scrambling and brilliant attack but without the star-studded backline they once had, last year’s results showed they need to be tougher in defence – or the finals could be out of reach.

Watch Out Cowboys: The Brisbane back row of Alex Glenn, Matt Gillett and Corey Parker might not sound like an all-star line-up to some – but in reality it is one of the more impressive in the competition. Glenn has long been earmarked as a Kiwi Test player of the future while Parker and Gillett were part of the Prime Minister’s XIII last year. And workhorse Parker has played Origin for Queensland in the past.

Gillett and Glenn are likely to be real handfuls on the edges – particularly Gillett who has an impressive offload in his kitbag. He pumped out 33 offloads last year and his 12 tries was the second highest mark in the club. Balancing that, he needs to work on cutting down errors.

Danger Sign: If Johnathan Thurston hasn’t learned to calm down and continues to blow his stack at his team-mates and referees when things aren’t perfect, his game will keep slipping, and so will the Cowboys’ fortunes.

Plays To Watch: With Lockyer (Broncos) and Thurston (Cowboys) running the show for their respective teams you can rely on some ‘old faithfuls’ coming out.

Thurston’s famous show-and-go will certainly get a run – this is where he runs at the line with two hands on the ball and dummies to one of his many options before slicing through on his own.

Lockyer will no doubt bust out his famous switch plays – this is where he shapes up on the open side of the field but times his run with the play-the-ball and scoots to a short corridor on the blind side to create an extra man and perhaps a break.

Where It Will Be Won: Attack, and defence, from distance. These two teams are going to score points and they are going to leak them. Early in the year they will both be rusty but if last season is anything to go by we know they are susceptible to long-range tries.

The Broncos leaked 17 tries from over halfway in 2010 – the most in the NRL. The Cowboys were the next worst in the league with 16 put past them from distance.

While the Cowboys had a slight edge defensively in attack, the Broncos were better as they posted 12 long-range tries of their own compared to just seven by the Cowboys.

Watch for both teams to give their speedsters a crack from all over the park. The side that shapes up best one-on-one defensively in these scenarios will be on their way to a first-up win.

The History: Played 29; Broncos 23, Cowboys 4, drawn 2. The Broncos have beaten the Cowboys in the past seven matches between the Queensland rivals. To make matters worse for the Cowboys, they have lost their past eight away matches. The teams have played at Suncorp Stadium on six occasions, with Brisbane winning four of them. In the corresponding match last year the Broncos catapulted to an early lead, the Cowboys clawed their way back but Brisbane grabbed a late try for victory.

Conclusion: The losses of Hannant and Hodges are big blows and the Cowboys, except for Antonio Winterstein and Brent Tate, are near full-strength. But with a packed house of Broncos fans they still get the slight edge. It should be close and we should see whether or not the Cowboys are really on the road to recovery – or if they face another long, tough year.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Gavin Morris; Video Ref – Tim Mander.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

See the official team lists for round 1