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North Queensland Cowboys v Melbourne Storm
Dairy Famers Stadium
Monday 6.15pm (Qld Time)

Round 3 draws to a close up in Townsville when the Melbourne Storm look to continue their dominance over the Cowboys while the home side desperately attempts to prove they are not cannon fodder in 2011.

The Cowboys once again sucked in thousands of fans with their Round 1 win over Brisbane, particularly as it came with Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen in full flight, but then dished up rubbish football at home last weekend to get rolled by the Knights. 

Every year it seems plenty want to back the Cowboys to do well – and with a roster with Origin and Test players scattered throughout, it is not a poor assumption to make.

But in the past couple of years particularly, the side has failed to live up to the hype – and last weekend was the perfect example. 

The 34-22 score line flattered the Cowboys; consequently coach Neil Henry has made some changes to the team now running 11th. Winger Michael Bani has been axed after a poor night, with promising youngster and ex-Dragon Kalifa Faifai Loa coming in. Ben Jones has also been dumped from the bench, with another young up-and-comer in James Segeyaro called into his place. 

Meanwhile the Storm have started the year with gusto, with convincing wins over the Sea Eagles and Titans. Now in second place, the Craig Bellamy’s unit has just a few cosmetic changes to the line-up with Kevin Proctor to play prop and Adam Blair to slot in at second row. Ryan Hinchcliffe has been named to start at lock, with Todd Lowrie reverting back to the bench. Matt Duffie and Adam Woolnough have been added to an extended reserves list. 
The Storm have won eight in a row against the Cowboys and would love nothing more than to make it nine straight. Given the Cowboys have lost their past four games at home, and their past four games against the Storm at Dairy Farmers, that’s on the cards.

Watch Out Cowboys: The Storm’s kicking game has been the catalyst to their impressive play so far; quite frankly it dumps all over the Cowboys in the same area. The Cowboys have averaged just 355 metres from the boot in their opening two games, compared to the 527-metre average of Melbourne. 

The Cowboys have let opposition kickers average 545 metres a match while the Storm have conceded just 476 metres a game. This has allowed Melbourne to play from better field position and in the Cowboys’ case it has put them under pressure defending their line way too often. 

In a clear-cut example of attitude you only need look at the fact the Storm have notched 33 good kick-chases in the first two rounds, compared to the Cowboys’ 15. As a basic fundamental to good play, kick-chase is all-important – and the Cowboys have been lazy already. 

Danger Sign: Watch the first few clearing kicks from each team – if the Storm send a ring of defenders to confront Matt Bowen and co, but Billy Slater is given a disjointed line to attack, the game will be as good as gone.

Watch Out Storm: Young five-eighth Gareth Widdop has yet to be really tested in defence and Johnathan Thurston is determine to make sure he is. With six misses from just 30 attempted tackles in the opening two rounds, Widdop has shown a little weakness but has also managed to hide himself from too much work. 

Of course, averaging 15 attempted tackles a game isn’t being invisible but most young halves have one of those days early in their careers when they are forced to attempt boat loads. Cooper Cronk, for instance, has been forced to attempt 45 this season. Watch for Thurston to direct plenty of traffic towards the English international. 

Danger Sign: If a player like Gavin Cooper can find Widdop isolated in front of him, the Cowboys should capitalise. 

Plays To Watch: Both fullbacks tearing up the middle of the ruck in support; Thurston and Cronk trying to one-up each other; Storm players giving former team-mate Dallas Johnson a touch-up; Johnson returning favour with some bone-crunching hits. 

Where It Will Be Won: Defence. The Storm built their dynasty (however tainted you want to call it) around solid defence and now they have started fresh they have once again stuck to the core principles of defending well first and foremost. Yes they have scored some great long-range tries but it all stems from the defence. 

Defence has also given the Cowboys a problem. They scrambled well against the Broncos but against the Knights they were embarrassing at times. Cory Paterson waltzed through after James Tamou called ‘touch’, forgetting he was playing tackle footy! And both Richie Fa’aoso and Beau Henry scored simple one-off-the-ruck tries in the hammering last weekend. 

If they don’t pick it up against the Storm, it will be another long night… and probably another long season for their fans.
The History: Played 22; Cowboys 5, Storm 17. The Storm have won eight straight against the Cowboys including two wins last season after the salary cap scandal broke. They have no problem travelling to Townsville where they have a 9-3 record against the home side. The last time the Cowboys beat the Storm was in 2006 at Dairy Farmers Stadium. The average score line in the past eight games, all Storm wins, has been a massive 34-11.  

Conclusion: Nine on the trot to Melbourne… that’s how it appears to be heading. A Thurston-Bowen show could get the Cowboys into this match but only if the rest of the team muscles up defensively. Cowboys fans haven’t seen a win at home since Round 20 last year… they could be waiting at least another fortnight. 

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Luke Phillips; Video Ref – Tim Mander. 

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 6pm (Qld), 7pm (NSW).

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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