Broncos v Cowboys preview

Broncos v Cowboys
Suncorp Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Brisbane’s second Queensland derby in as many weeks had promised to be somewhat of a letdown following the slow starts endured by both of these clubs in 2013, but strong wins in their respective games last week has suddenly thrust this Heritage Round contest right back into the spotlight.

The Broncos’ 32-12 win over the Gold Coast was particularly significant. Having won just one of their opening four games of the season, they were facing serious questions over not only their ability to make another run to the finals but a basic ability to score points. 

They had gone some way to quashing their self-doubts a week earlier when they staged an impressive second-half comeback against Melbourne before falling 32-26 but it was the nature of their victory over the Titans that has put them back on the premiership radar. Trailing 12-10 at the break – having twice hit back from being a try down – Brisbane really clicked into gear in the second half as they scored four unanswered tries to get their season back on track. 

Confidence makes a huge difference in the NRL and having twice lost games they should or could have won at the break this season (against Manly and the Roosters), their second-half display against the Gold Coast may well prove season-defining.

But they aren’t the only side to have brushed aside some early season cobwebs last weekend, with North Queensland securing their most emphatic win of 2013 with a 30-0 shutout of Penrith at Dairy Farmers Stadium.

The Cowboys had been one of the biggest disappointments in the competition leading into Round 5 – the pre-season hotshots having also won just one of four to start the year – but they showed off at least some of their potential as they put the sword to the Panthers.

North Queensland was scintillating in the early stages as they raced to a 22-0 lead after 18 minutes although it would have been the side’s defence that most pleased coach Neil Henry. Surprisingly fragile at times of late, being able to defend their tryline will ultimately determine whether or not the Cowboys can finally launch the premiership tilt their talent demands.

In team changes, Broncos captain Sam Thaiday returns in the front row from his one-week suspension, with Scott Anderson moving back to the bench and Dunamis Lui dropping out of the Brisbane squad.

Halfback Michael Morgan returns after a brief one-week absence for the Cowboys in place of Robert Lui, who has a dislocated kneecap.

Fellow playmaker Ray Thompson is also likely to make his return from injury after being named on an extended bench that also includes possible inclusions Ashton Sims, Clint Greenshields and Joel Riethmuller.

Watch Out Broncos: Brisbane has bolstered their forward stocks with the return of Sam Thaiday but can they match it with the best front row in the business? James Tamou has averaged more than 145 metres per game this season and Matthew Scott over 135 as the brilliant partnership of the Australian Test bookends continues. There is no doubt that key playmakers Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen scare the life out of any defensive unit but it is the work of Tamou and Scott that provides them the space they need to do their thing. Do the Broncos have what it takes to match them?

Watch Out Cowboys: Broncos coach Anthony Griffin sprung a surprise when he moved Josh Hoffman from his preferred fullback spot to the wing late last year and again at the start of 2013, but rather than spit the dummy, Hoffman has been in scintillating form so far this season. The Kiwi Test aspirant has averaged 116 metres on Brisbane’s left edge as well as ranking fourth in the NRL for tries (five from five games) and equal seventh for tackle-breaks (21).

Plays To Watch: It’s as simple as they come but already the Cowboys have enjoyed tremendous success with it this season. When the ball goes to Johnathan Thurston on the right-hand side with a backline spread out behind him, there is little doubt what is about to take place: the big man running the ‘unders’ line is a decoy and it will inevitably be either Matt Bowen or Michael Morgan who receives the second-man ball instead. And with quick hands, their right-edge combination of Brent Tate and Ashley Graham (now Kalifa Faifai Loa in Graham’s absence) regularly find themselves on the way to the tryline. In fact, so often does North Queensland run this simple play that it’s surprising how often it works – already this season they’ve scored four times with this very move.

Where It Will Be Won: Up front. This is a battle of the big men if ever there has been one. The Broncos head into this clash with an all-Queensland State of Origin front row of Ben Hannant and Sam Thaiday who are averaging 117 and 107 metres respectively this season. But, likewise, the Cowboys also boast an all-Origin front row with fellow Queenslander Matt Scott and NSW youngster James Tamou having formed a superb combination over the past few seasons. It promises to be a fearsome confrontation.

The History: Played 34; Broncos 24, Cowboys 8, drawn 2. Brisbane boasts a better record against North Queensland than against any other side.

Match Officials: Referees –  Ashley Klein & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Chris Butler; Video Referees – Luke Phillips & Neil Wharton. 

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

The Way We See It: The Queensland derby rarely follows the form guide these days given the passion this game generates and the familiarity so many of the players have with each other thanks to time spent playing together for Queensland. If this was played in Townsville we would certainly be tipping the Cowboys but other than their big win over battlers Penrith last week they are yet to show any great consistency. Brisbane, on the other hand, have played 120 minutes of top-quality football since trailing Melbourne at half-time two weeks ago and are starting to look the goods. We can see them edging this one. Broncos by eight points.

*Statistics: NRL Stats.