Cowboys v Eels preview

North Queensland Cowboys v Parramatta Eels
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 6.30pm (Qld time)

What a difference a week can make in rugby league! Were it not for Matt Bowen’s late heroics against Brisbane last Friday night, North Queensland would have faced the same fate as this week’s opponents Parramatta with a coach under pressure to find his first win of the 2012 season. Instead, they head into their Round 3 clash hot favourites to make it two from three and set themselves up for a solid year.

Truth be told, it was a very different Cowboys outfit against Brisbane to the one that couldn’t catch a cold against the Gold Coast a week earlier. With Johnathan Thurston calling the shots and Bowen running circles around the defence, North Queensland can be a real threat this season and they’ll be keen to show their home fans what they’ve got to offer after their Round 1 aberration.

Conversely, it has taken just two games for Parramatta to find themselves in familiar territory with consecutive losses to Brisbane and the Warriors. Admittedly, injury hasn’t been kind during the early rounds, with Jarryd Hayne playing just 16 minutes in his first game of the year on Monday night before his knee gave way. Although news that the injury isn’t serious is some consolation for Eels fans, they will again be without their superstar fullback when they travel to Townsville.

The bright spot for Parramatta despite their run of outs has been the form of big-name signing Chris Sandow who has done everything in his powers to inspire his side over the past two weeks. Ironically, he scored the club’s first try of the season after just five minutes against Brisbane in Round 1 and added two more against the Warriors to give the Eels hope of an upset win. 

Still, near enough isn’t good enough and they now find themselves staring down the battle of three losses to start the year.

The Eels welcome back captain Nathan Hindmarsh and veteran back Luke Burt for this week’s clash, while Ryan Morgan is recalled in place of the injured Esi Tonga (hamstring). Hindmarsh missed the loss to the Warriors after being hospitalised with a serious virus, with Burt back after scoring 24 points for NSW Cup side Wentworthville last weekend.

Glenn Hall returns in the second row for North Queensland with Cory Paterson dropping back to a six-man bench.
Matt Bowen is closing in on a unique record. Bowen has scored 59 tries from 109 appearances at Dairy Farmers Stadium and will become just the twelfth player in history to score 60 tries or more at a single venue. Steve Renouf is the only man to have done so in Queensland, with 62 at Brisbane’s old home ground ANZ Stadium. 

Meanwhile, former Cowboys centre Willie Tonga will be determined to finally enjoy victory with the Eels given that his nine games in the blue and gold have produced eight losses and a draw. 

Watch Out Cowboys: Despite Parramatta’s losing start to the season, new buy Chris Sandow has impressed in both games and is the side’s leading tryscorer so far with three. Two of those have been opportunist tries; however his heavy and energetic involvement is exactly what the Eels have been looking for in a No.7. He has also kicked for a total of 718 metres so far which is more than every Cowboys player combined. Expect him to ask plenty of questions of the Cowboys this weekend.

Danger Sign: The Cowboys have made more errors than any other side after two rounds this season – a whopping 40 in total (which is five more than the next worst in the NRL). Although 28 of those errors came in their shocking Round 1 performance against the Gold Coast, they were punished for some dropped ball against Brisbane last week and can’t afford to keep offering their opponents such cheap possession. Notably, the Cowboys have also made fewer metres than any other side so far in 2012.

Watch Out Eels: The Johnathan Thurston-Matt Bowen combination was at its brilliant best last Friday night and will again test the resolve of the Parramatta defensive line. Bowen showed that there is no substitute for raw speed with two scintillating tries – the first seeing him burst through a gap from a Thurston short ball before running around Broncos fullback Josh Hoffman and the second a solo sprint from the base of the scrum. Their talents could prove the difference.

Danger Sign: Question marks must be asked about the Eels’ defence up the middle so far this season where they have already conceded three soft tries in their two games. They included a far-too-simple try to Feleti Mateo the first time the Warriors attacked Parramatta’s line on Monday night, when Elijah Taylor went between two defenders before offloading to his unmarked team-mate. Notably, North Queensland have scored five tries so far in 2012, with three of them right in that central corridor that worries the Parramatta defence.

Matt Scott v Fuifui Moimoi: This heavyweight clash promises to be quite a battle: the Telstra Premiership’s No.1 front-rower v its top impact forward. Scott was particularly impressive against the Broncos last week running for a game-high 174 metres while Moimoi was one of only two Eels forwards (alongside Taniela Lasalo) to top 100 metres against the Warriors with 117. 

Where It Will Be Won: Both of these sides have struggled in the middle of the park over the opening rounds – a surprising statistic given the personnel they have available but also a telling one. The Cowboys are the worst side in the NRL in 2012 when it comes to metres gained, with an average 1128 per game, while Parramatta rank just above them in 15th at 1185 per game. And while there have been some standout performances by individuals – namely Matt Scott’s 174 metres against Brisbane last week – there is no doubt these two packs are yet to hunt as a unit in 2012. Remedying that this Saturday would go a long way towards claiming a crucial two points.

The History: Played 27; Eels 16, Cowboys 10, drawn 1. Although North Queensland won their last clash in Round 10 last season, Parramatta had won the previous five clashes between the sides and six of the past eight overall. The Eels’ second biggest win of all time came against North Queensland in 2001 when they prevailed 62-0 at Parramatta Stadium (their biggest win was against an 11-man Cronulla in 2003).

The Last Time They Met: North Queensland finished over the top of the Eels to score a crushing 40-26 win. Parramatta looked set for a big win when they raced to a 16-0 lead through tries to Jordan Atkins, Ben Smith and Jarryd Hayne – the latter two coming from long-range Joel Reddy breaks.

Hayne was at his brilliant best as he produced a series of big plays but the Eels’ lead was soon cut back with Antonio Winterstein pushing his way across from dummy-half and Johnathan Thurston orchestrating a Willie Tonga try to make it 16-10 at the break.

Hayne was again at the forefront as the Eels crossed twice within 10 minutes of the second half kicking off through Casey McGuire and Reddy but, incredibly, North Queensland piled on 30 points in the final 20 minutes to steal a 14-point victory.

Tries to Tonga, Kalifa Faifai Loa and Thurston stunned the Eels, with scores level by the 69th minute and they added two more in the dying stages through Glenn Hall and Thurston himself.

The Cowboys finished the game with a whopping 1597 metres gained to Parramatta’s 1253 and an 88 per cent completion rate, while all five outside backs made 100 metres or more. Centres Willie Tonga and Antonio Winterstein both made eight tackle-breaks. Jacob Loko was equally impressive for the Eels with 155 metres, 11 tackle-breaks, two line-breaks and 16 tackles.

Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Paul Mellor. 

The Way We See It: This Eels outfit deserves an A for effort and had lady luck smiled on them a little more they could well have jagged a win in the opening rounds, but the fact remains that they must do a lot more to convince they have what it takes to challenge for a top eight berth. The absence of star fullback Jarryd Hayne certainly doesn’t help their cause. 

On the other hand, North Queensland looked sharp against Brisbane last week and although they are prone to lapses, they should have too much class for the battered Eels – not to mention a vocal home crowd. Notch up win No.2 for the year to North Queensland.

Televised:  Fox Sports 2 – Live 6.30pm (Qld), 7.30pm (NSW). 

* Statistics: NRL Stats