Sea Eagles v Cowboys
Brookvale Oval
Saturday 7.30pm
 
The match of the round could very well turn into the match of the season despite the absence of a couple of key players from both sides, with the buoyant Cowboys travelling to Brookvale Oval hell bent on protecting a 12-year unbeaten run on the northern beaches.

With both sides sitting on 20 competition points – the Sea Eagles third and the Cowboys fourth behind the Storm on points differential – this game could represent a huge turning point for one of the combatants. With the competition pacesetters the Dragons only 50:50 propositions to get a win against the Titans given their dramatically under-strength roster (minus six stars), the winner of Saturday night’s game could sit just one point back from the top of the NRL ladder at the end of the round and in a great position to push for the minor premiership.

The Sea Eagles will be out for revenge, having fallen narrowly (22-20) to the Cowboys in Townsville just six weeks ago. That was one of two two-point losses they’ve suffered to date; with just three defeats all year it’s obvious this is a serious football side. They simply toyed with the Bulldogs last week with seven stunning tries and could have kept the opposition scoreless had it not been for a late Ben Barba try against the run of play.

They’ve won seven of their past eight, with the loss to the Cowboys their only blemish over the past two months. A win here would be their fifth in a row.

Likewise the Cowboys have won seven of their past eight, with a 22-8 loss to the Dragons in Round 9 their only hiccup. Last week they trailed the Raiders by 22 points in almost even time before steaming over the top of the Green Machine, a sign they will not lose their heads when things go pear-shaped. Here they’re shooting for a fourth straight win.

In personnel changes the Sea Eagles have ushered back Michael Oldfield to fill in for NSW Blues rep Will Hopoate on the left wing, with Joe Galuvao to start in the second row for Anthony Watmough. Darcy Lussick and Daniel Harrison are the new faces on a bench that numbers five players.

Meanwhile the Cowboys have handed Johnathan Thurston’s precious No.7 jersey to Toyota Cup halfback Michael Morgan, while Ashton Sims starts at prop for Maroons rep Matthew Scott. James Segeyaro and Ben Jones are the new faces on the bench.

It’s a milestone week for Ashton Sims who plays his 150th NRL game.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Has anyone noticed the similarities in the running styles of explosive Cowboys rookie Tariq Sims and the Sea Eagles’ Anthony Watmough? The 21-year-old destroyed the Raiders last week with three line-breaks, two tries and a vital try assist. He definitely channelled Watmough when crossing for his first try on the stroke of halftime, all body swerve and short, fast steps.

Coach Neil Henry has a huge opinion of the junior Sims, who has gone from being their 18th man in Round 1 to an integral member each week since. And it’s not just his attack that’s smoking – he’s proven one of the biggest hitters in defence too. He’s made 17 dominant and 18 one-on-one tackles.

The Sea Eagles need to be wary of the Cowboys’ stunning ability to bust the line. They lead the NRL for line-breaks this year with 63. Fullback Matt Bowen has made seven but he’s also put five team-mates into space. Plus once he’s in the clear Bowen is proving mighty hard to bring down – he leads the league for tackle-breaks (74). 

Danger Sign: Not only do the Cowboys have a good record at Brookvale Oval, it’s also their most prolific venue since the turn of the century. They are averaging a staggering 27.8 points a game at Brookie so if they start getting on a roll it could be hard to peg them back.

Watch Out Cowboys: The Sea Eagles have embarked on a points-scoring frenzy down their left flank in 2011. They’ve scored 51 tries in total – with 29 down what is the most lethal left edge in the NRL. That’s a concern for the Cowboys, who leak more tries through their right-side defence than their left (19 to 15).

Expect Daly Cherry-Evans to single out Kalifa Faifai Loa for some special attention with kicks down the Cowboys’ left edge too – KFL has defused just 25 per cent of bombs to date, leaving Sea Eagles chasers Jamie Lyon and David Williams licking their lips.

Danger Sign: When Cherry-Evans and Kieran Foran get animated down the left edge points are unavoidable. Watch also for Foran to employ his infield kick off the outside of his right boot for Brett Stewart.

Plays To Watch: Cherry-Evans hitting hard-running forwards with flat passes close to the line; Foran dictating second-man plays down the left edge; Steve Matai running decoys; Brett Stewart chiming in on both sides of the field and up the guts; Matthew Bowen passing wide to Kalifa Faifai Loa inside his 20-metre zone; Tariq Sims taking no prisoners up front with barnstorming runs and bruising hits; Aaron Payne offering excellent support play.

Where It Will Be Won: Both sides have awesome attacks (even allowing for Thurston’s absence) so defence will be the key. To date the Sea Eagles have missed the fewest tackles in the comp (26.3). That’s almost 10 misses fewer than the fourth-worst Cowboys.

Countering that will be the issue of discipline. The Cowboys have conceded just 62 penalties all season – the second fewest by sides. The Sea Eagles have conceded 72.
But the biggest issue will be how Michael Morgan fills in for Thurston in the Cowboys’ No.7. This will be Morgan’s second NRL game in 2011; in 11 games in the Toyota Cup he’s been solid enough, ranking third for line-break assists (nine) and adding eight try assists. But Thurston leads the NRL in those categories with 20 and 17 respectively.

Morgan is a good defender for a No.7 though, with just 27 misses. Thurston has missed 46 in the top grade.  

The History: Played 16; Sea Eagles 9, Cowboys 7. The visiting Cowboys have won five of the past eight games between the sides, including a 22-20 decision in Townsville in Round 8. The Sea Eagles hold a 3-2 advantage in games played at Brookvale Oval.

Conclusion: While both sides are in sparkling form, if you based your selection solely on last week you’d have to lean towards the home team. Against the Bulldogs they recorded their best completion rate so far this season (84 per cent) and posted a club all-time high in metres gained (1768). Also, they missed the fewest tackles of any side this season (14). By comparison the Cowboys missed 42 tackles against the Raiders and were probably a little lucky to get the verdict. 

Expect plenty of points from at least one side – the Cowboys have registered the most points on average over the past month (33), with the Sea Eagles close behind (29).

This will be the first encounter between these sides at Brookvale since 2005. The Sea Eagles have the best home record of all teams this year, winning all five games at their ‘Fortress’. We get the feeling their dodgy record against the Cowboys at home is about to end.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Russell Turner; Video Ref – Chris Ward.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live – 7.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats