Knights v Cowboys
Two sides that opened their 2013 premiership campaigns with promising wins but then experienced worrisome blips on their radars look to get back on track on Monday night.
It's still tough to know what to make of Wayne Bennett's Knights after their 32-blot capitulation to the Sea Eagles at Brookvale last Sunday. They entered the match with huge expectations after blowing away the Wests Tigers 42-10 in round one in a game that saw them pile on seven tries not even three-quarters of the way through the 80 minutes.
However, that sort of mojo was nowhere to be seen against the Sea Eagles, who were always in control, running in six unanswered tries en route to their second win of the season to occupy equal top spot on the NRL ladder.
Meanwhile North Queensland didn't exactly lose face in their defeat to premiers Melbourne at home in Townsville last Saturday – although the 32-10 result was a little lopsided in most pundits' eyes given the boom placed on the Cowboys in pre-season discussions and also after their dominant 24-12 win over 2012 premiership runners-up Canterbury in round one.
Clearly both sides will be focused on a vigorous turnaround this week, lest they drop back into the pack and out of the top eight at this early stage.
Both coaches have personnel concerns, although each also welcomes back some star power. Willie Mason and Dane Gagai joined the Knights' growing list of casualties, with prop Mason expected to miss just the one match with a calf strain, while Gagai (ankle) will be sidelined until round eight. Mason's place in the starting 13 has been taken by David Fa'alogo. Gagai's absence is balanced by the return of Timana Tahu for his first NRL game of 2013; in a reshuffle, Tahu's substitute for the past two weeks, Anthony Quinn, shifts to the right side of the field.
Meanwhile Cowboys coach Neil Henry has handed Michael Morgan the No.7 jersey while Ray Thompson (ankle) recuperates until his expected return in round seven. And in a bombshell, Tariq Sims has been relegated to Queensland Cup to try to find some fitness and form, with Scott Bolton his substitute on the interchange. Anthony Mitchell plays his first NRL game for 2013 off the bench, replacing Rory Kostjasyn.
It's a milestone game for Cowboys co-captain Johnathan Thurston who plays his 200th NRL game, while teammate Ashley Graham suits up in his 150th.
Watch Out Knights: Expect co-captain Thurston to hit the ground running in his 200th first grade game – he's already in sparkling form and the fact it's being played away from home could actually help rather than hinder his performance as he gets to avoid the hype that would have accompanied marking the milestone in Townsville.
Over the opening two matches Thurston has notched three try assists and four line-break assists, including three in a beaten side last week. He lifts for contests with quality opposition – the last time he opposed Jarrod Mullen he contributed two line-breaks and three offloads as well as running 110 metres in a 22-14 win.
At present Newcastle have conceded the second-fewest metres around the park in 2013 (just 1166 a week) but their resolve is sure to be tested by a Cowboys front row that is second to none when it comes to grinding out dominant field position. Co-captain Matthew Scott and James Tamou have picked up where they left off in 2012, averaging 151 and 139 metres respectively in 62-minute stints. Worryingly for Wayne Bennett the pair combined for 39 hit-ups and 355 metres the last time the sides met.
Watch Out Cowboys: The Cowboys need to watch their left-side defence after conceding four tries there last week. That's the corridor Uate will be steaming down.
On the other side of the field Timana Tahu will pose a threat – he scored two tries off line-breaks close to the stripe last time these sides met and will test out Brent Tate.
Fringe-dwelling back-rower Beau Scott will ask questions of Kane Linnett on the Cowboys' left edge; the bruising Scott will look to combine his creativity from round one (five tackle-breaks and two offloads) with his damaging running from last week (103 metres).
Plays To Watch: Plenty of left-side combinations from Kurt Gidley, Darius Boyd and Tahu, with Mullen and Uate doing the same on the right; Jason Taumalolo steaming towards Tahu and James McManus on the Cowboys' right edge; Kade Snowden revving up against Scott and Tamou; plenty of offloads from the Cowboys (11 so far, fourth most).
Key Match-Up: Kurt Gidley v Michael Morgan. There will be plenty of focus on Thurston and Jarrod Mullen at five-eighth, but the battle one-man-in will be the real yardstick to the outcome.
After three injury-interrupted seasons from 2010-12 during which time he played only 39 games – including just five last season – Newcastle captain Kurt Gidley needs to make a statement here. He has had two soft games without making headlines; back in his favoured position wearing the No.7 he needs to take control and provide the spark that made him such an exciting talent running the ball to the line in years past.
Gidley won't get a better opportunity to shine, with his opposite No.7 Michael Morgan likely to keep things simple and feed his main man Thurston at every opportunity. Gidley has yet to make a try assist, line-break assist or line-break; we're expecting something special this week.
Where It Will Be Won: Over by the corner posts. Fans occupying seats near the four corners of Hunter Stadium will be licking their lips at the prospect of some up-close action given the attack within both teams' ranks. Already Akuila Uate has bagged three tries to sit equal leader in the try-scoring stakes – alongside Cowboys winger Ashley Graham. Uate leads the league for line-breaks (with four), just ahead of the Cowboys' other wingman Antonio Winterstein. Throw in the creative contributions of the respective fullbacks – Matt Bowen starred with three line-breaks, a try, 13 tackle busts and 175 metres the last time the sides met, while Darius Boyd chimed in with two try assists and two line-break assists – and it's clear the touchies will be kept on their toes all evening.
The History: Played 28; Knights 16, Cowboys 12. North Queensland have won the past three games played between these clubs (two at Hunter Stadium).
Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Dave Ryan; Video Referees – Ashley Klein & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Fox Sports 1HD – Live 7pm.
The Way We See It: Arguably the toughest match of the round to predict. Both teams like to play it fast and furious and it will all depend on which side regroups the best following opposition raids. Home ground advantage is offset by the loss of Dane Gagai, who will be sorely missed. We'll side with the Cowboys by four-points in a rollercoaster affair.
*Statistics: NRL Stats