Brisbane prop Ben Hannant says hooker Andrew McCullough is vital to the Broncos’ chances this weekend as they aim to expose a weakness in the Cowboys’ try-line defence.
Despite figuring prominently in many experts’ premiership predictions, North Queensland has the second-weakest defensive record close to the line in the top eight, behind Canberra.
North Queensland has conceded 11 tries from dummy-half this season, more than any other team in the NRL, while nearly 61 per cent of tries scored against the Cowboys have come from within 10 metres of the line (only Canberra concede more from that area with 66 per cent).
Hannant says the Broncos, who haven’t won a finals match outside of Suncorp Stadium since 2009, will use McCullough as another playmaker when they move to within striking distance of the Cowboys’ stripe.
“You’ve got to get down there first,” Hannant says. “So I think the main focus will be on getting our game plan right and you've got to be able to come out of your own end and be able to throw a bit at them in attack.
“I think we need to get more on board with [McCullough] and use him as another half.
“We need to let him get out of dummy-half and push with him and let him create some opportunities – and that comes back to us big boys pushing up.”
The Cowboys (1438.4 metres per game) and the Broncos (1406.1 metres per game) both rely on strength in the middle of the field and are ranked first and third respectively for metres gained.
With four out of the six starting forwards from Queensland’s Origin side featuring in this match, Hannant says there is no doubt it will be decided up front.
“All semi-final football is won in the forwards. It’s the same with Origin matches and Tests,” he says. “If you don’t win that field-position battle – which is not only us in the middle driving the ball forward but also your kicking game as well – you’re going to be really struggling.
“It’s going to be a matter of winning that field-position battle, kicking well and positioning your kicks right and then backing that up with defence.
“That’s the challenge for the boys in the middle and obviously it’s very important to get a roll on.”
With McCullough enjoying his best season so far in the top grade, the Broncos have been lethal out of dummy-half both close to the line and in the middle of the field.
Their eight tries from hooker this season rank them second in the top eight behind South Sydney (14), while Andrew McCullough has made more line-breaks than any other rake in the top eight.
Hannant says McCullough and the rest of the Brisbane forward pack will be crucial in reaching North Queensland’s weak zone.
“If you do that with support and try and get as many one-on-one tackles or two-on-one tackles instead of three and four in the tackles, that will help with quick play-the-balls.
“So it’s a matter of helping each other in the middle of the field to create opportunities for us to get in quicker play-the-balls for [McCullough].”
North Queensland have made the second-fewest one-one-one tackles (401) in the top eight behind the Melbourne Storm (395). But there could be scope for McCullough to work his magic, with the Cowboys ranked a lowly 12th in the NRL for tackles at marker.
The Cowboys have had Brisbane’s measure on each of the two occasions the sides met this year. The Cowboys clinched a thrilling 28-26 victory when they travelled to Suncorp Stadium in Round 2, while a brutal defensive effort handed them a 12-0 victory when the teams last played in Townsville in Round 15.
But the feeling will be a lot different this Saturday when Queensland hosts its first ever elimination derby.
“It’s sudden death for us and for them as well; it’s semi-finals football, the season is finished and it’s the business end,” Hannant says.
“That’s the exciting thing: there’s no second chance, it’s their home ground and they’re the favourites so you just can’t afford to leave anything in the tank.
“It doesn’t matter if you finish first or eighth, you’ve got exactly the same chance of winning the grand final if you win your games.
“It is do or die [and] we go on holidays early.”
Asked if he was happy to put them off for another week, Hannant quickly replied: “I wouldn’t mind putting them off for another four weeks, to tell you the truth.”