Roosters v Cowboys preview

Sydney Roosters v North Queensland Cowboys
TIO Stadium, Darwin
Saturday, 7pm (local)

The Northern Territory mightn’t be a regular location for top-grade rugby league but Darwin locals are in for a treat this weekend. The Roosters and Cowboys clash this round at TIO Stadium – and with both clubs part of a nine-team logjam that sees third and 11th just one win apart, this match is vitally important.

The Roosters have been the league’s surprise packets so far this season. After very limited recruitment in the off-season, last year’s 11th-placed finishers are 2012’s dark horses. The Roosters sit in fifth after four wins from six starts, including impressive and gutsy recent wins against the Titans on the Gold Coast last round (18-12) and the Warriors (26-8) in Round 5.

The Cowboys, on the other hand, have won three of their six matches thus far in 2012, but were walloped by the Storm 42-18 last start. Neil Henry’s men will no doubt want to quickly recapture the form that has so far seem them smash the Eels, defeat the Raiders in Canberra and beat the Broncos on the bell in Brisbane.

For the Roosters, Frank-Paul Nuuausala is missing from the team that beat the Titans. The prop suffered a fractured jaw in that match and won’t be back until Round 10. Aidan Guerra returns to the Roosters’ NRL side after suffering an ankle injury against the Raiders in Round 3. Daniel Mortimer and Jack Bosden have also been named on an extended bench for the Roosters.

For the Cowboys, centre Kane Linnett is absent with a hamstring injury, with Antonio Winterstein pushing to left centre to cover for his loss. Try-scoring freak Kalifa Faifai Loa gets his first chance in 2012 on the wing. Scott Bolton has been recalled after recovering from a knee injury, with outside back Mosese Pangai added to a five-man bench.

Watch Out Roosters: The Cowboys have one of the best long-kicking games in the competition and successful implementation of that once again by the likes of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen will go a long way to securing victory for North Queensland. The Roosters’ chasers and back three will need to be on their games – the Cowboys have the second-highest metres-per-kick average in the NRL (52.8 metres) as well as the second-highest percentage for kick accuracy (62 per cent). Bowen is also one of only two players to have kicked two 40/20s this season (the other is Knights playmaker Jarrod Mullen).

Danger Sign: If North Queensland’s forwards and playmakers are given room to breathe, the Cowboys could well put on an attacking masterclass. The Cowboys have scored 23 tries so far in 2012 (nine more than the Roosters), and once again their kicking is the focus. The Roosters had better be on guard – North Queensland have scored six of their four-pointers from the boot (third most in the NRL).

The Cowboys also have an incredibly strong try-scoring preference for the right flank – they have crossed for a league-high eight tries next to the right corner post, where star backs Brent Tate and Ashley Graham reside.

Watch Out Cowboys: The Roosters are riding high following their recent determined victories over the Titans and Warriors. That confidence could see the NRL’s new ‘entertainers’ throw caution to the wind – the Roosters lead the competition for offloads (14.3 per game) and are third in the competition for tackle-breaks. If the Cowboys fail to lock-up the ball-carrier and put him to ground, they could be in for a long evening in Darwin.

Danger Sign: The Roosters love an arm-wrestle. So far in 2012, Sydney haven’t lost a match they could’ve won – in fact, the only matches they’ve lost were by significant margins against the Storm (44-4 in Round 4) and against the Panthers (18-0 in Round 2). Judging by recent results, the Cowboys are going to need to come out swinging if they are to pluck the Roosters. Brian Smith’s men have won close matches against the Raiders, Titans and Rabbitohs so far this season… and that is bound to be a focus of the match preparation of Cowboys coach Neil Henry.

Anthony Minichiello v Matt Bowen: The battle of the No.1s will have a big bearing on the outcome of this match. Both players have distinctly different attributes – Minichiello is a renowned line-breaker and try-scorer, while Bowen is a creative fullback with a deadly accurate kicking game – but they are both vital to their team’s success.

So far this season Minichiello has once again proven both as safe as houses and a match winner – he’s also notched the third-highest number of kick-return running metres, three tries, two line-breaks, two line-break assists and 18 tackle-breaks. Meanwhile Bowen has been just as busy, scoring five tries, registering five line-breaks, four try assists and, just like ‘Mini’, 18 tackle-breaks.

Who has a better match in this clash? Chances are it’ll be the fullback from the winning team.

Where It Will Be Won: Both teams have enough playmaking power to close out a match if given the space. The Roosters have experienced halves in Braith Anasta and Mitchell Pearce, while the Cowboys have arguably the game’s greatest playmaker in Johnathan Thurston. In 2012, though, Thurston has shifted to five-eighth with former No.6 Ray Thompson pushed to halfback. For either set of halves to dominate, they require their forwards to gain the upper hand and get their team on the front foot. So far this season the Roosters average 1340 metres per match, just seven more than the Cowboys. The battle for field position and, more importantly, point-scoring opportunities between two evenly matched forward packs will be intriguing.

The History: Played 27 – Roosters 20, Cowboys 7. The Roosters might have the all-time record well and truly covered, but amazingly North Queensland have won four of their past five encounters up against the tricolours.

The Last Time They Met: It was the death of former team-mate Sam Faust that inspired the Cowboys to a memorable 20-6 victory against the Roosters in Round 12 last season. Faust died of leukaemia days before the clash and players wore jerseys with his name embroidered on the left breast. Halfback Thurston was the star performer, scoring a try, laying on another and kicking four goals on the way to collecting three Dally M points.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein and Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane and Dan Eastwood; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: This match could be one of the tightest and most entertaining of the round, especially if the forwards give their halves the necessary room to create attacking opportunities. The Roosters, however, are without one of their strongest and most influential forwards in Frank-Paul Nuuausala. It’s a big blow, as the lock is not only one of the Roosters’ most prodigious offloaders (12 this season, equal first at the club alongside halfback Pearce) but also is one of his team’s biggest threats to opponents. His absence swings the game the way of the ‘visitors’. Cowboys by six points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats.