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Cowboys v Broncos
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.45pm

The great Queensland derby hits new heights this week as North Queensland and Brisbane battle it out in a do-or-die semi-final with the loser set to drift off into the premiership sunset.

This will be just the second time that the Cowboys and Broncos have met in a finals match following North Queensland’s 10-0 win back in 2004 and although Brisbane have long been considered the big brother, they will have the weight of a passionate Townsville crowd pushing against them in their quest to keep their season alive.

If form is anything to go by the Cowboys should emerge victorious in this one given that they are riding a four-match winning streak including impressive performances away to St George Illawarra and Cronulla and a hard-fought victory two weeks ago to end Newcastle’s season. Certainly they look far better positioned to make a run for the grand final than they did 12 months ago when they bowed out in Week One of the finals with a 42-8 thrashing at the hands of Manly.

This time around they look fit, boast a near full-strength squad and have star players Johnathan Thurston, Matt Bowen and Brent Tate finding their best form at the right end of the season.

Brisbane, on the other hand, have largely been in free-fall since the end of the State of Origin period and needed a last-round win over Penrith to secure a finals berth that had looked assured for so much of 2012.

It’s hard to know exactly what to make of the Broncos this week. That they finally notched a win last Friday night in the week that coach Anthony Griffin reverted to his first-choice spine with Josh Hoffman at fullback and Corey Norman at five-eighth suggests that they might just have got their act together again in time. They’ve also welcomed back key players in recent weeks with their back row playing a starring role against the Panthers.

However, do they believe in themselves enough after losing six in a row between Rounds 20-25? That sort of run is never good for the confidence.

Still, the Queensland derby has always thrown up surprises and this week could prove no different.

The Cowboys welcome back co-captain Matt Scott after he was rested last week, with Ashton Sims dropping back to the bench. Coach Neil Henry has named an extended 19-man squad this week including Joel Riethmuller and Anthony Mitchell.

Brisbane will field an identical side to the one that downed Penrith last week.

Former Bronco Brent Tate will be looking to keep his great record against his old club going – the North Queensland centre having won five of seven clashes. He remains one of the heroes of Brisbane’s last premiership charge in 2006 – having scored in each of their final three games, including the grand final.

Notably, only Matt Bowen and Aaron Payne remain from North Queensland’s semi-final win over Brisbane way back in 2004. The veteran duo have appeared in all 11 of the Cowboys’ finals games.

Watch Out Cowboys: Brisbane’s back row is their great strength and on the back of last week’s win over Penrith they are seemingly ready to fire up for the finals. Combining the aggressive and powerful running of Alex Glenn and Sam Thaiday with the relentless workload of Corey Parker, all three topped 100 metres against the Panthers in a worrying sign for this week’s opponents North Queensland. Notably, there were two big plays from their back-rowers last week that typified what they are capable of – the first Ben Te’o’s powerful run to give Brisbane a second-half lead and then a wonderful angled run from Glenn to score the match-winner.

Danger Sign: North Queensland’s back three can expect a working over this week given Brisbane’s love of the high kick. The Broncos rank first in the NRL this season for mid-field bombs with 44 and second for both attacking bombs (80) and cross-field kicks (71). They have also attempted more chips than any other side with 28. The Cowboys can expect to be tested from the air on Friday night.

Watch Out Broncos: It’s no secret that Matt Bowen presents and a clear and present danger to any defensive line, but it is his support play that makes it so important for Brisbane’s big men to stay alert and on the ball this Friday night. The Cowboys support the ball carrier more than any other side in the NRL and it is Bowen that leads the way with 162 supports in 2012. Even Ben Barba (135) and Billy Slater (124) don’t support as often.

Danger Sign: Watch for North Queensland to head to their right edge in attack at every opportunity where Brent Tate and Ashley Graham have formed a lethal combination out wide. The Cowboys have scored 49 tries on their right in 2012 compared with 35 on their left. Tate has contributed eight line-breaks, 12 try assists and 14 line-break assists while Graham finished the regular season equal top tryscorer with Canterbury’s Ben Barba with 21.

Matt Bowen v Josh Hoffman: Two men that are so vital to their side’s chances. Bowen is all speed and footwork – his ability to flash through a gap and leave the big men stranded worth the price of admission alone. Hoffman, meanwhile, bases his game on his powerful kick returns which set a tremendous platform for Brisbane’s forwards to get on a roll.

Where It Will Be Won: We know North Queensland can score points, but what about the Broncos? The onus will be on halves Corey Norman and Peter Wallace this week. Having begun the season on fire, they have come in for some criticism over the past two months but this is the time they must stand up – because if Brisbane don’t find a way to post points they will struggle to keep up with the brilliance of Thurston and Bowen.

The History: Played 33; Broncos 24, Cowboys 7, drawn 2. Brisbane boasts a better record against North Queensland than against any other side and lead 14-3 in clashes at Dairy Farmers Stadium – although the Cowboys have won three of the past four.

The Last Time They Met: North Queensland produced a stellar defensive effort to keep Brisbane scoreless as they gritted their teeth to record a 12-0 win at Dairy Farmers Stadium in Round 15.

Despite having four players backing up from State of Origin II just a few nights earlier – with Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin opting to rest all of his Origin stars except for Ben Hannant – the Cowboys kept their first clean sheet since 2005 to cement their spot in the top eight.

Both sides pulled off some remarkable try-saving tackles and it wasn’t until the 61st minute that first points were posted with Johnathan Thurston throwing a brilliant inside ball for Matt Bowen to race through before offloading for Gavin Cooper to score untouched.

The match was finally decided with six minutes remaining as Thurston and Bowen combined once more on the left edge to put Kane Linnett over.

Bowen finished with a game-high 225 metres while Thurston was again at his sizzling best, running for 124 metres and making two line-breaks.

Josh McGuire was a colossus for the visitors, running for 94 metres and making 60 tackles.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Dave Abood & Luke Potter; Video Referees – Paul Simpkins & Chris Ward. 

The Way We See It: Brisbane’s form in the lead-in to the finals simply hasn’t been strong enough to tip victory against a red-hot Cowboys outfit. North Queensland is high on confidence and playing in front of a big home crowd. We think they will have too many points in them. Cowboys by eight.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Delayed 11.45pm.

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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