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Cowboys v Storm
Saturday, 6.30pm (Qld)
1300SMILES Stadium

Red-hot North Queensland and Melbourne meet this Saturday night – but the clash of rugby league’s two best attacking sides isn’t the only thing that’s bound to make this a scorcher.

The only match scheduled for Townsville in the first month of the competition, it’s very much still hot and steamy in ‘Mango’ country – and it’s forecast to be 30 degrees on match day (although temperatures are predicted to drop to a ‘cool’ 27 by kick-off). 

The tropical conditions shouldn’t perturb the visitors, though – last start the 2012 NRL premiers battled the Dragons at home on a stifling 35-degree Sunday. The Storm dominated St George Illawarra from the outset, with Billy Slater and Cooper Cronk continuing their sublime form from 2012 in the 30-10 victory that featured a series of near-length-of-the-field tries.

Last start the Cowboys – the unlucky team eliminated from last year’s finals after swallowing that controversial decision against Manly – proved they are still competition heavyweights with a dominant performance against the Bulldogs. Their four-tries-to-two 24-12 triumph showcased the attacking genius of freshly re-signed halfback Johnathan Thurston, who recorded three try assists and seven tackle-breaks, as well as the point-scoring and metre-eating prowess of wingers Ashley Graham (140 metres and two tries) and Antonio Winterstein (171 metres and a try).

The Cowboys take an unchanged line-up into the clash after defeating the Bulldogs in Gosford last Saturday night. The Storm, meanwhile, have made only one change to the team that smashed the Dragons in Melbourne, with Bryan Norrie returning to the squad and Slade Griffin maintaining his position on an extended bench. 

Watch Out Cowboys: Melbourne are on a hot streak, and they are undefeated in their past 10 matches, including their Round 1, 30-10 victory against the Dragons, the World Club Challenge triumph and their 2012 Grand Final victory. Their scorching form revolves, as per usual, around the big three of Slater, Cronk and captain Cameron Smith – and all three, Queensland and Australian representatives, remain deadly with the ball in hand despite now nearing ‘veteran’ class. North Queensland, you’ve been warned.

Watch Out Storm: Last week the Cowboys proved lean, mean scoring machines against the Bulldogs in Gosford. They were efficient and clinical in their victory, recording five line-breaks and 1403 metres gained to the Bulldogs’ 1252 metres in the 24-12 romp. Cowboys props Matt Scott (143 metres) and James Tamou (161 metres) in particular carved huge inroads into the Bulldogs’ big forwards. If they steamroll another forward pack this Saturday night, it’ll prove almost impossible for the Storm’s stars to stop.

Plays To Watch: Cameron Smith darting from dummy-half to attract the markers and ‘A’ defender to create room for his first receiver; ‘JT’, ball in two hands, twisting, turning and presenting the Steeden to a range of his teammates only to take on the defence himself; Billy Slater’s high-octane, energy-charged, helter-skelter sprints in attack and defence; Ashley Graham getting himself in position to score a four-pointer… yet again (he was equal top try-scorer in the NRL and scored a double last weekend).

Key Match-Up: Is there a player in the NRL with worse luck than Matty Bowen? Amazingly, the man they call ‘Mango’ has been restricted to just 10 games for Queensland from 2003-2007, when his form really warranted much more. Unfortunately for him Billy Slater’s presence has had more than a little to do with it. However, for Cowboys fans, Bowen’s personal loss is their gain – and what a significant boost it’s proven to be. In 2012, JT’s rejuvenated sidekick finished second in the Dally M Medal following a season that resulted in 13 tries, 20 line-breaks, 19 line-break assists and 27 try assists. Here’s his chance to go one-up on adversary Slater – and prove once again he will never look out of place in a Maroons jersey.

Where It Will Be Won: Defence is the go-to point of emphasis for most coaches, but in recent years of Cowboys-Storm clashes in Townsville it’s almost always been forgotten about. 

Last year Melbourne blew the Cowboys away at the stadium formerly known as Dairy Farmers, with a 42-18 victory. In Round 3 the year before, though, the home side triumphed 34-6. 

Who’s going to turn up ready to dominate their opponents in the Townsville clash this year?

The History: Played 25; Storm 18, Cowboys 7. At 1300SMILES Stadium the Storm retain the decided advantage with 10 wins from 14 meetings.

Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Daniel Eastwood & Dave Munro; Video Referees – Paul Simpkins & Chris Butler.

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 6.30pm (Qld), 7.30pm (NSW). 

The Way We See It: The Storm have to crack at some stage and, following a dreadful schedule that’s seen them travel to and from England in the past few weeks, the trip to tropical Townsville to take on JT, Mango and co. could prove too much – particularly after the unseasonal scorcher in Melbourne last week, when they got the chocolates despite being far from their best. We’re leaning towards to home side, particularly on the back of Thurston’s reportedly record-breaking $5-million-dollar, four-year contract extension. Cowboys by seven points.

*Statistics: NRL Stats

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