Cowboys v Broncos preview

Cowboys v Broncos
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Round 23 kicks off with an absolute blockbuster from Townsville, where the North Queensland faithful will be treated to one of the most anticipated club games of the season.

There are a thousand sub-plots at play here but most of the headlines leading into this game will be reserved for inspirational Broncos’ skipper Darren Lockyer, who this weekend becomes the most-capped player in rugby league history.

Lockyer’s 350th game for the Broncos moves him past Terry Lamb and Steve Menzies, who each played 349 games. But while there is no getting away from the hype surrounding Lockyer’s record match, the man himself will be focused on the task at hand – beating the Cowboys and helping his side consolidate a top-four spot.

The third-placed Broncos are just two points ahead of the Cowboys, who will move ahead of Brisbane if they win this one by more than two points.

Ironically the man who will be most important to the Cowboys’ attempt to ruin Lockyer’s milestone will be the same individual who helped craft his fairytale farewell from the Origin arena – Johnathan Thurston. ‘JT’ has returned early from an ankle injury he sustained in that very game and he will no doubt be ready to lift for a near-top-of-the-table all-Queensland derby. This match will be crucial to determining which of these two teams will be the highest-finishing Queensland team and takes out the unofficial Queensland minor premiership – a title the Broncos usually have a monopoly on. The Cowboys love nothing more than getting one up on their ‘big brothers’ from down south though, which always adds extra spice.

Thurston will slot straight back into halfback in place of Ben Jones, and will be joined in the starting side by Origin prop Matt Scott who also returns from injury, pushing Glenn Hall back to a five-man bench. The Cowboys’ stocks will be further bolstered by Kalifa Faifai Loa who also returns from injury at wing, replacing Will Tupou.

The Broncos have just one change – Josh McGuire will start at prop in place of the injured Ben Hannant, with David Hala joining the 17. Corey Parker has been named despite being under an injury cloud.

Lockyer won’t be the only one bringing up a milestone: this will be the Cowboys’ 200th game at Dairy Farmers, and they are one win away from 150 club wins.

Meanwhile you can bet every one of the 140 team-mates who’ve run out with Darren Lockyer over the past 16 years will turn to their wives, partners and children and say: “I played with him!”

Watch Out Cowboys: This week it’s all about Darren Lockyer. Age has done nothing to dull the effectiveness of the champion pivot who looks as dangerous at 34 as he did at 18. The mercurial Lockyer is third in the league for try assists with 19, and also has nine line-break assists. And just to show the old legs still work he’s added four line-breaks and two tries.

The Cowboys also happen to be one of Lockyer’s favourite opponents: he has 21 wins from 28 games against the north Queenslanders, the most by any player against a single opponent. His first game against the Cowboys came in 1996 at ANZ Stadium in Brisbane where he scored a try in a 58-14 shellacking.

Of course, a player of Lockyer’s experience and calibre brings so much more to a team that stats alone can’t define – his leadership qualities and the lift his team-mates experience just from having him in the team are immeasurable.

Perhaps the Broncos’ record with and without Lockyer shows just how important he is to this team: with him they’ve won 231 from 349 games for a win rate of 66 per cent. Without him they’ve won just 24 from 70 at 34 per cent.

Danger Sign: The club’s leading tryscorers are also among the Brisbane’s youngest first graders. Jharal Yow Yeh (11 tries) Jack Reed (nine tries) and Gerard Beale (eight tries) have all benefitted from Lockyer’s experience and uncanny ability to always make the right decision in attack. The floated kick out to a leaping Yow Yeh has been particularly successful, and is a play the Cowboys will need to defuse if they are to be successful here.

Watch Out Broncos: The Cowboys have shown they are much more than a one-man team, winning three out of five games while Thurston was out injured – but that doesn’t mean they won’t be a whole lot stronger with the world’s best No.7 back at the helm.

Thurston has raised his game to another level in 2011 – if that’s even possible. Despite missing five games through injury and another with Origin commitments Thurston leads the competition for try assists with 21, and is the runaway leader for line-break assists with 26 (next best Benji Marshall, 20). And just to show his is truly an all-round game, Thurston has also racked up 10 line-breaks and nine tries.

Danger Sign: While Matt Bowen really stepped up in Thurston’s absence, it’s the combination the pair has established when playing together that is key to the Cowboys turning it all around this year. When Thurston is creating havoc around the ruck Bowen will be ready in support to run through a gap, run a decoy or chase through on a kick.

Plays To Watch: A touch of class from Lockyer in his milestone game: a well-weighted kick or perfect cut-out pass right when his team needs it; Thurston to respond in kind with some magic of his own in his comeback game; silky running and offloading from Justin Hodges; Brent Tate to continue his tryscoring ways: the former Bronco has scored in his past three games, the last time he scored in four consecutive games was back in 2003 – ironically for the Broncos against the Cowboys.

Where It Will Be Won: In the red zone. In what should be a close game, goal-line defence will be absolutely crucial. The Cowboys have scored 48 tries from inside their opponents’ 10-metre line, more than any other team in the competition. The Broncos are also short-range specialists: they have scored 53 of 71 tries from inside their opponents’ 20 metres. And their four tries scored from inside their own half is fewer than any team in the league other than Cronulla.

Both of these teams tend to rely on a high-quality kicking game and dominant forward pack to earn field position, build pressure then strike from close range. Whichever team does better at defending their line, defusing those short kicks and avoiding having to defend repeated sets, will earn the advantage.

The History: Played 30; Brisbane 23, North Queensland 5, drawn 2. Brisbane have well and truly had the wood over their northern neighbours since the Cowboys entered the competition. And that record is actually stronger at Dairy Farmers, where they lead the Cowboys 13-2 with one draw. Brisbane have only lost one of their past eight against the Cowboys but that loss came this year as the Cowboys surprised everyone by beating the Broncos 16-14 back in Round 1.

The Cowboys so far haven’t lost back-to-back games all season.

Conclusion: The fact that Thurston returns to a side that has been playing fairly well in his absence is significant, and the return of Matt Scott is a huge bonus – especially given the withdrawal of Hannant for the Broncos.

While Brisbane will be determined to lift for their skipper, the Cowboys have everything to play for. They have a terrible record against Brisbane but this side looks like it has the steel to start reversing that record. It’s unlikely this game will see a blowout – the last five games between these clubs have been decided by single figures – emotion could well carry the day for the Broncos but there’s also every chance the Cowboys could repeat their Round 1 effort and graft a narrow win… it’s too close to call. Strap yourself in!

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Gavin Reynolds; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

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

* Statistics: NRL Stats.