Cowboys v Broncos preview

North Queensland Cowboys v Brisbane Broncos
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Broncos coach Anthony Griffin will still be having nightmares about the defensive lapse that enabled Matt Bowen to steal victory for the Cowboys as the fulltime siren neared in their clash at Suncorp Stadium in Round 2.

Nevertheless, here they get their chance at revenge at a venue that holds no fears for them – the Broncos have a better record against the Cowboys at Dairy Farmers Stadium than they do playing them in Brisbane, winning 14 of 17 games in Townsville, plus a draw.  

It’s a crunch game for the Cowboys who suffered successive on-the-road defeats to the Wests Tigers and Titans before resting up with the bye last week. The losses plunged them to sole possession of eighth rung on the NRL ladder, but they desperately need to win here to keep pace with the five sides that sit one win ahead of them.

Coach Neil Henry doesn’t subscribe to the Anthony Griffin school of thought regarding selective State of Origin back-ups and will be hoping Maroons Origin representatives Johnathan Thurson, Matt Scott and James Tamou will be fit to take their place in the run-on side; however, centre Brent Tate remains in doubt after injuring his knee and ankle in Queensland’s close 12-16 loss to the Blues. 

Meanwhile Broncos coach Griffin has rested prop Petero Civoniceva and centre Justin Hodges – but will be calling on Ben Hannant and Matt Gillett to go to the well for a second time in 48 hours. Corey Parker is out after suffering a deep gash to his foot in Origin II and Sam Thaiday remains on the injured list after dropping out of Origin with a shoulder injury picked up in their Round 13 pummelling of the Knights.

Brisbane’s win over the Roosters last week made it two wins in a row to follow up their successive losses to the Warriors and Sea Eagles, with a bye sandwiched in between. They sit outright second but will be keen to keep themselves ahead of the aforementioned pack of five chasers just two competition points below them.

The Cowboys have promoted Aaron Payne to the starting side to cover for the injured James Segeyaro, with Glenn Hall also starting and Cory Paterson benched. The Cowboys have named a seven-man interchange including new faces Michael Morgan, Ricky Thorby, Scott Bolton and Kalifa Faifai Loa.

Meanwhile Ben Hannant’s return for the Broncos sees Mitchell Dodds revert to the bench, with Dunamis Lui expected to take Corey Parker’s place in the run-on side and 18th man Brendon Gibb joining the interchange.

Watch Out Cowboys: Josh Hoffman will be primed for a repeat of his stellar performance in Townsville last August when he became only the second fullback in history to score a hat-trick of tries against the Cowboys at their tropical HQ. The evasive fullback is making a career-high 17.4 runs in 2012 and he has carved out the second-most metres to date (2054).

Brisbane are in an attacking mindset – despite the horrible weather conditions last week they topped 40 points in Sydney for the first time since the 2006 Finals Series. Before that they hammered the Knights 50-24. If the Cowboys get behind early the visitors could be hard to reel in.

Danger Sign: If hooker Andrew McCullough continues to direct the Broncos with precision and few mistakes it will provide the Broncos a strong attacking platform. McCullough has fumbled the football just five times in 2012, from 980 receives – and only one of those has been on the Broncos’ side of halfway. McCullough will also pose a threat out of dummy-half where he has made three line-breaks (the third most).

Watch Out Broncos: The alarm bells are ringing for Brisbane’s defence: rated the best unit for making their tackles just four weeks ago, the Broncos are now tallying the fifth-most missed tackles each week (27.4).

Matt Bowen popping up all over the place and Ashley Graham’s finishing on the right wing are obvious dangers. Graham is the competition’s leading try-scorer and he ranks third for line-breaks (12), while Bowen has scored nine tries and is fifth for line-breaks (with nine). In particular Peter Wallace needs to get his clearance kicks right – currently he’s averaging just a middle-of-the-pack 52 per cent to open space, and Bowen is averaging 12 metres on kick returns. Bowen needs just one more try assist for 100 in his career.

Brent Tate, who last played for the Broncos in 2007, has scored against his former side in both games since joining the Cowboys from the Warriors, including a crucial try in their last victory back in Round 2. He sits on 99 career wins.

When the Broncos see Dallas Johnson running towards them a man wide of the ruck they need to remind themselves it’s likely a smokescreen – the former Maroons star has tallied the most decoy runs so far (105). The real threat will loom out the back, with Thurston pumping the pass.

Danger Sign: The Broncos’ defence will need to lift to counter the support play of the Cowboys. Matt Bowen leads the NRL for backing up his team-mates with 130 supports; Johnathan Thurston has made 95, Ray Thompson 81 and Gavin Cooper 66. That makes four Cowboys in the top nine in the NRL. Committed and instinctive, they never give up on a play.

Cowboys props v Broncos props: Providing plenty of personnel back up from Origin and they’re not too jaded from Wednesday night’s clash, this could be a bell-ringing battle.

For the Cowboys, James Tamou has made 201 hit-ups and ranks fifth for total metres gained (1895) while Matt Scott is averaging 14 hit-ups and 124 metres. Ben Hannant is averaging 14 hit-ups for 112 metres for Brisbane and team-mate Josh McGuire is contributing 105 metres each week, with 25 tackle busts overall. Also, starting in a game for the first time in 2012 last week McGuire recorded his most ever runs (20) and tackles (47) in a regular-season fixture.

Where It Will Be Won: Around the goalposts. While both sides love to shift the ball wide it’s interesting to note the Cowboys have conceded the most tries under their goalposts (13) in the premiership, while the Broncos aren’t far behind them (10). Both sides love to hit runners in centre-field from close range, as a variation to their expansive shifts. They also like to target the posts with high kicks and grubbers looking for possible rebounds – the Cowboys scored this way in Round 2 when Josh Hoffman lost control in a tackle after a rebound. Brisbane have scored the most tries around opposition goalposts (14), while the Cowboys have tallied 12.   

The History: Played 32; Broncos 24, Cowboys 6, drawn 2. The Broncos have won six of the past eight clashes but the Cowboys have won two of the past three. Three of the past seven games have been decided by two points or less. Brisbane claim a better record at Dairy Farmers Stadium than any other club, winning 83.3 per cent of matches there.

The Last Time They Met: The Cowboys clinched a thrilling 28-26 victory in the dying moments of their Round 2 clash at Suncorp Stadium.

North Queensland fullback Matt Bowen was the hero, picking up the ball from a scrum while packed down at lock, slicing through the unprepared Broncos defence and racing 40 metres to score the match-winner.

It was heartbreaking for Broncos fans who’d witnessed their players come back from a 16-8 halftime deficit to seemingly have the game in the bag following Ben Teo’s 69th minute try down the right edge that grabbed them a 26-22 lead.

However, the Cowboys were certainly the better side in the first half, scoring three tries – with Dallas Johnson’s charge to score under the posts in just the fifth minute highlighting a glaring weakness in the Broncos’ goal-line defence.

The Broncos got back into the game early in the second half when prop Josh McGuire scored a try against the run of play – Cowboys fullback Matt Bowen dropped the ball after being collared by Matt Gillett 10 metres out from his goal line, with McGuire scooping up the spill and crossing unopposed.

Gerard Beale grabbed the Broncos a 20-16 lead in the 47th minute before an over-enthusiastic rush from the defensive line by skipper Sam Thaiday saw Johnathan Thurston check a last-tackle kick and instead put Bowen into space to snatch back the advantage with 25 minutes to play. Bowen’s second try in the 79th minute sealed the win.

Bowen and Thurston starred for the Cowboys, each adding a try assist and making a game-high six tackle-breaks, while Corey Parker (20 hit-ups) and Justin Hodges (155 metres, a try assist, a line-break and two offloads) were Brisbane’s best.   

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Luke Potter & Clayton Sharpe; Video Referee – Chris Ward.

The Way We See It: This is a tough one to call. Both sides will score plenty of points (there hasn’t been a game with less than 30 scored in their past eight meetings) but it’s likely the team that keeps a level head and muscles up in defence when it’s needed will prevail. Anthony Griffin isn’t overly impressed with the Broncos’ defence at present and we figure the players will be keen to set things right with the coach. Brisbane by six points in an entertaining contest.   

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 1am.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats