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North Queensland Cowboys v Gold Coast Titans
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 8.30pm (Qld time)

It’s the battle of the new number 6s as Johnathan Thurston takes the field in his first NRL game at five-eighth for the Cowboys, while 20-year-old Jordan Rankin has been given first dibs at consolidating the troublesome pivot role for last year’s wooden spooners.

The Thurston ‘experiment’ kicks into gear as the former halfback moves out one position as a stepping stone to the Queensland role left vacant by Darren Lockyer’s retirement. Meanwhile coach John Cartwright is hoping Rankin can soothe their five-eighth ills of the past 12 months since the retirement of Mat Rogers and release pressure from burdened halfback and captain Scott Prince.

The Cowboys, minus Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen to All Stars duty, matched motors with the Broncos in their opening trial on February 4. They led 18-16 at halftime before succumbing 28-20 in a high-quality hit-out that featured standout performances from Ray Thompson, Scott Bolton and James Segeyaro. The following week they scraped home 18-12 against a moderate-strength Dragons outfit, with wingers Antonio Winterstein and Ashley Graham and second-rower Gavin Cooper all scoring in the opening 20 minutes.

However, the Titans will be buoyed by their 36-28 victory over their Round 1 opponents just a fortnight ago. After being thumped 26-10 by the Warriors and upsetting the Broncos 18-16, the Titans – minus Luke Bailey and Greg Bird – headed to Mackay where William Zillman tore the Cowboys apart.

The surprise on the selection front for this clash is that exciting talent Kalifa Faifai Loa has lost out in the three-way battle for the two Cowboys wing spots, with Ashley Graham and Antonio Winterstein getting the nod. Brent Tate has been included in the centres alongside Kane Linnett but he remains in doubt with a rib injury; if he’s ruled out Winterstein will shift to centre and Faifai Loa will get his chance.

Ray Thompson will play halfback inside Thurston.

The Cowboys’ pack remains formidable despite the absence of injured star Tariq Sims: the starting line-up reads Matt Scott, Aaron Payne, James Tamou, Glenn Hall, Gavin Cooper and Dallas Johnson. Their bench comprises James Segeyaro, Scott Bolton, Jason Taumalolo and Ashton Sims.

Meanwhile an injury to Beau Champion and a strong off-season from Dominique Peyroux sees the 23-year-old suit up alongside marquee purchase Jamal Idris in the Titans’ centres. With coach John Cartwright placing his faith in Rankin at five-eighth, William Zillman reverts to fullback. Ex-Rooster Nate Myles pairs with Luke Bailey in the front row, with Kayne Lawton handed the starting hooker role. Former Shark bookend Luke Douglas will start off the extended bench, which also features Matt Srama, Matt White, Ben Ridge and Luke O’Dwyer.  

Stats show the Titans have lost seven of their past eight games against Queensland-based opponents – but that downer is countered by the fact the Cowboys have got the competition points just five times in their 15 opening round appearances.

Watch Out Cowboys: Nate Myles, Luke Douglas and Luke Bailey form a formidable front row for the Titans. Douglas will be keen to leave his mark in his first NRL game for his new team and, after representing the PM’s XIII last October, he knows higher representative honours may be just around the corner if he can impress early. He averaged 108 metres and 32 tackles for the Sharks in 2011. Nate Myles will be out to justify his high price tag; in his half-dozen games in the front row for the Roosters last year he averaged a huge 131 metres and 40 tackles. Meanwhile Bailey averaged 123 metres and 33 tackles in Titans colours. The trio will lay a solid platform.

David Mead’s blistering acceleration, even from a standing start, needs to be watched. Mead knows his way to the try line – his 16 four-pointers were the second most behind Akuila Uate last year, while his 15 line-breaks were the third most among wingers.  

Danger Sign: If the Titans’ front row gets on a roll expect Greg Bird to take control. The aggressive Bird loves playing against the Cowboys and last time out ran to a standstill with 22 hit-ups for 161 metres with five tackle busts. If the forwards get the Cowboys backpedalling Bird can inflict damage himself or link with Idris and Zillman with devastating effect.

Watch Out Titans: Matt Bowen had an uncharacteristically quiet running game the last time these sides met (just 48 metres) but he still left his stamp with a line-break and four tackle busts from just four runs. However, he really showed his worth as a distributor, receiving the ball 54 times in Johnathan Thurston’s absence and contributing a try assist. The Titans can’t afford to let Bowen get into a groove after his brilliant 2011 season, where he added the third-most tackle busts in the comp (124) and tallied the most try assists by any fullback (17) – better than Slater, Boyd and Stewart. Bowen has added incentive to get over the try line – he needs just seven points for 500 career points.

Danger Sign: Johnathan Thurston ranked fourth in the NRL for try assists in 2011 with 22 – and the three players ahead of him – Darren Lockyer, Jarryd Hayne and Benji Marshall – were all five-eighths. There’s no telling what damage Thurston may wreak now he has the No.6 on his back and more room to move. He’ll be excited about showcasing his wares against the side that conceded the most points per game in 2011 (26.2), most tries (4.5) and second-most line-breaks (5.1). ‘JT’ will look to drift to the right to link with Ashley Graham – the Titans’ left-edge tacklers conceded the most tries by any side (47) – and will target David Mead on the left as well given the speedster missed more tackles than any winger last year (48). Thurston will hurt the Titans himself too – no player has scored more points against them (68).

Kane Linnett v Jamal Idris: Two exciting young talents go head to head in their first NRL outings for their new clubs. Both Idris and Linnett are powerful runners of the football, with Idris busting through more tackles than any other centre last year (117), while Linnett averaged more than two each game in 2011.

The History: Played 9; Cowboys 5, Titans 4. The honours are even four games apiece from the past eight encounters – although the Cowboys have won four of the past five including both clashes in 2011. The ledger stands 2-2 at Dairy Farmers Stadium.

The Last Time They Met (NRL): The Cowboys overturned a 14-6 halftime deficit to nail the Titans 28-20 at Skilled Park in Round 20 last year. The home side raced to a commanding lead with William Zillman crossing for two tries in the opening 22 minutes but they surrendered their lead when conceding two tries in the seven minutes immediately after halftime. Winger Steve Michaels wrested back the ascendancy with a try midway through the second section before the Cowboys scored twice in the final 10 minutes to get the chocolates. The Titans were unlucky – they actually bettered the Cowboys in most key stats categories but ultimately line-breaks told the story (4-2 the Cowboys’ way). Hooker Matt Srama was a huge contributor for the Titans with 91 touches and 45 tackles.

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Michael Wise; Video Referee – Chris Ward.

The Way We See It: Obviously a lot hinges on the performance of the respective five-eighths – and given Thurston showed the positional shift won’t be too hard given his two try assists for the Indigenous All Stars, we’re in the Cowboys’ camp. However, this game could be closer than most pundits think and an upset would come as no surprise. Cowboys by four points.  

Footnote: The omen call of the evening is for Ashleigh Harrison to cross the stripe – no Titans lock has scored a try against the Cowboys in their nine meetings to date.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 9.30pm (NSW), 8.30pm (Qld).

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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