Cowboys v Storm preview

Cowboys v Storm
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Sunday 7pm 

As mouth-watering clashes go, Sunday night’s meeting between the might of the Melbourne Storm and the thrill-a-minute ride of an in-form North Queensland is about as good as it gets.

Melbourne is a daunting proposition at any given time of the year and their undefeated start to 2012 is fairly typical of their dominance over the past seven seasons. But, if there is any side in the Telstra Premiership with the players to give them a taste of their own medicine, it is the Cowboys. 

The individual match-ups alone are worth the price of admission. Slater v Bowen… Smith v Payne… Nielsen v Tate… and of course the halves pairings of Cronk and Widdop up against Thurston and Thompson.

It is hard to fault the Storm so far. With the exception of an opening round scare against Canberra, they’ve dominated all-comers – scoring a whopping 29 tries from their five games and conceding just 11.

Slater, of course, has been a standout with a record four consecutive try doubles in the first four games of the year and nine in total after he crossed again in last Friday night’s win over Newcastle.

Similarly, Cronk’s kicking game has been superb, while as a unit Melbourne have made fewer errors than any other side in the competition.

They are some difficult statistics to overcome, but in the far north Queensland heat and with Thurston and Bowen leading the way, the task gets much tougher for the Storm this Sunday.

Although consistency remains a problem for the Cowboys, they have shown that they will be one of the more potent attacking sides in the competition this season, with only Melbourne and Canterbury having scored more tries so far.

Key to that has been the vast improvement of halfback Ray Thompson, who after playing every minute of every game last season looks far more settled alongside Thurston and has formed a brilliant partnership with his captain and the side’s third playmaker – fullback Bowen.

Bowen is also in scintillating form, having scored four tries, produced five try assists and made five line-breaks this year.

The Cowboys take an unchanged line-up into this week’s match following their 22-6 win over Canberra on Monday night, but Melbourne will be without back-rower Sika Manu who injured an ankle against Newcastle last Friday. They’ll also miss winger Anthony Quinn, suspended for a week for the second of his two high shots on Junior Sa’u last week – Sisa Waqa is his replacement. Todd Lowrie starts at lock with Ryan Hoffman and Ryan Hinchcliffe in the second row.

The good news is that Slater is almost certain to play despite spending much of this week wearing a moon boot to help alleviate foot soreness.

Coach Craig Bellamy has named a five-man bench, with one of either Rory Kostjasyn or Maurice Blair likely to drop off.

The match is a significant one for North Queensland, with Aaron Payne set to play his 200th NRL game and Johnathan Thurston his 150th in Cowboys colours. Thurston also needs just five points to become the first player to score 1000 points for the club. 

Watch Out Cowboys: Can anyone stop Billy Slater? Already this year he has been labeled both the greatest fullback of all time and even the greatest attacking player of all time. And who could argue? The reigning Dally M medal winner passed Rhys Wesser in Round 3 as the highest try-scoring fullback in premiership history with his 130th career try and has since taken that tally to 133. Slater is the complete player – a dynamic kick returner with tremendous support play and the ability to set up the play when he chimes into the backline. He is certain to test the Cowboys’ defence.

Danger Sign: Melbourne’s kicking game is second to none and they lead the league this season for total metres gained from the boot with 3399 at 680 per game. Most of that is on the back of No.7 Cooper Cronk, who has kicked for more metres than any other player in 2012 (2239). Notably, the Storm also lead the NRL for ‘kick backs’ – getting to your own kick before the opposition does – with 16 ‘kick backs’ at a success rate of 27.6 per cent. Again, Cronk has done so seven times, with Slater not far behind with four.

Watch Out Storm: Melbourne must be wary of the ever-improving combination between Johnathan Thurston and Ray Thompson. Although the pair have officially swapped jerseys this season with Thurston now in the No.6, the pair regularly swap around which makes life difficult for their opposition. And Thurston is still the main go-to man for the big plays – often standing at first receiver on fifth tackle or after a half-break. Still, Thompson is no shrinking violet and scored a clever try against Canberra last week with a solo run from close range. They are a dangerous duo.

Danger Sign: North Queensland love attacking to their right edge, having scored 12 tries on that side this season compared to just five on the left. That preference paid huge dividends against Canberra on Monday night, with three tries scored in the right-hand corner and a fourth coming about directly as a result of the previous three, The typical play sees Ray Thompson find Johnathan Thurston, who will then have a number of players running various lines outside him to choose from. Against the Raiders, he essentially threw a third-man ball for his side’s opening try – cutting out two decoys to put Brent Tate over. Right winger Ashley Graham scored two tries in the same spot and Thompson’s solo try in the second half came about when he headed right and dummied, with the defence expecting the ball to again head wide to Thurston.

Matt Bowen v Billy Slater: What a match-up – the explosive speed and stepping of Bowen versus the sheer brilliance of Slater. Both men are key figures in their side’s attacking structures and both have the ability to win a game single-handedly. Let’s hope they both enjoy big nights out because it will make for quite a spectacle.

Where It Will Be Won: Defence will be the key here for the simple fact that there is going to be a lot thrown at both sides. This match features five players who represented Queensland last season and 10 with State of Origin experience, so defensive lines will have to move up quickly and read the plays well.

The History: Played 23; Storm 17, Cowboys 6. North Queensland’s 34-6 win in Round 3 last season was their first over the Storm in their past eight meetings. Melbourne have dominated this rivalry. In stringing seven consecutive wins together between 2007 and 2010, they scored a total of 256 points to the Cowboys’ 80 and twice notched 58-12 victories.

The Last Time They Met: North Queensland produced a devastating second half performance to completely overwhelm the Storm 34-6 in Round 3 last year. It was an extremely un-Melbourne like effort from the visitors, whose night was further soured by injuries to Sika Manu, Kevin Proctor and Dane Nielsen. 

Despite trailing just 10-6 at half-time after a late Gareth Widdop try cancelled an early Will Tupou try, and a blockbusting 90-metre effort from Kalifa Faifai Loa that led to Matt Bowen crossing, Melbourne fell apart after the break with the Cowboys adding a further four tries. The first came 10 minutes into the second half with Johnathan Thurston throwing a well-timed long ball for Ashley Graham to step inside and score. Thurston then set up Bowen to score his second with a pinpoint grubber before the brilliant halfback worked a second-man play with Ray Thompson for Graham to cross again.

Tariq Sims finished the job when he stormed his way over three defenders to score in the 74th minute.

The Cowboys ran for a massive 1405 metres compared to just 941 by Melbourne with Ashley Graham overcoming some first-half errors to make 171 metres, score two tries and add nine tackle-breaks. A total of six North Queensland players topped the 100-metre mark including Bowen, Tupou, Faifai Loa, Matt Scott and James Tamou while Dallas Johnson chimed in with 51 tackles.

Cameron Smith made 49 tackles for the Storm.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Clayton Sharpe; Video Referee – Phil Cooley. 

The Way We See It: The game of the round in a round of so many cracking games, this promises to be an open, high-scoring contest of the highest quality. And it should serve as Melbourne’s toughest test of the year so far. A Cowboys win wouldn’t surprise, but does anyone ever tip against Melbourne? They haven’t lost yet and until they do we’ll stick with the safe bet. Melbourne by one to 12 points. 

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.