Cowboys v Raiders
Saturday 8pm (local)
Two new coaches, two vastly different rosters and expectations at either end of the spectrum make for a fascinating first hit-out for the Cowboys and Raiders.
Since arriving at Townsville on the back of two Intrust Super Cup titles and an NRL premiership as an assistant at the Roosters, new Cowboys mentor Paul Green has barely put a foot wrong. Two impressive trial performances book-ended the club's first piece of significant silverware – the inaugural Auckland Nines – and despite limited time with his World Cup stars over the pre-season he appears to have ingrained a harder edge to the Cowboys' normally free-flowing style of play.
The long-term injury to Lachlan Coote suffered at the Nines threatened to derail the new spine before it had even been set but then Green gave Michael Morgan a shot at fullback in the final trial and stumbled upon the perfect solution.
Twelve months after starting the season as one of the competition elects and then subsequently losing nine of their first 13 games, Green is endeavouring to show his players what it takes to win on a consistent basis and make good on the promises their talent should be able to deliver.
Adding further intrigue to the contest is the newest addition to Green's coaching staff, assistant coach David Furner, who will be able to impart intimate knowledge on the inner workings of the boys from Canberra.
Of course, things look different in the nation's capital also with Ricky Stuart returning to the lime green to try to restore order to a club that was beset by on and off-field dramas throughout 2013.
Infamous rooftop buddies Josh Dugan and Blake Ferguson were both jettisoned before the end of the season while the club had to fight tooth and nail to get one more year out of Anthony Milford before he is due to join the Broncos.
But it is a much happier Canberra camp that starts the 2014 season and with the blend of exciting talents in Milford, Josh Papalii, Jack Wighton and Edrick Lee, tough older heads up front and Terry Campese finally ready to start a season injury-free, Stuart has the tools to extract a year that finishes in finals football from his men.
Watch Out Cowboys: Plenty of questions will be asked regarding the character of Anthony Milford dependent upon how he approaches what is supposed to be his final year at Canberra. Will he light up the NRL and repay the faith shown in a club that signed him as a 16-year-old or be distracted by a future that lies north of the border?
We'll get out first indicator on Saturday night and it could be the Cowboys who must deal with the consequences. In 18 top grade games last year Milford scored nine tries and made 12 line breaks and took that form to the World Cup with Samoa where he had 30 tackle breaks, five line breaks and 11 offloads, as well as scoring one of the tries of the tournament.
Wherever he pops up on the field, it will be a genuine test of the Cowboys' new defenseive structures.
Watch Out Raiders: It won't matter whether they look left or right, the Raiders are going to have a hard time keeping their edge defence in one piece with Tariq Sims and Jason Taumalolo ready to cut loose.
Although Green has the experience of Gavin Cooper and Glenn Hall to call on in the back row, the pre-season form of both Sims and Taumalolo makes their claims for a starting spot almost undeniable. After a stop-start beginning to his NRL career, Taumalolo appears ready to make good on his enormous potential despite the fact he is not due to turn 21 until May 30. He was a one-man wrecking machine in their trial win over the Broncos and scored a try from a deft Johnathan Thurston short ball against the Titans.
A World Cup with his brothers, Ashton and Korbin, and an injury-free pre-season has Tariq Sims poised to push for an Origin debut in 2014 after two outstanding trial performances and playing a key role in the Cowboys' Nines victory.
It has the potential to be a one-two punch unmatched in the NRL.
Plays To Watch: The plays in which they structure around the powerful edge runners on both sides; Papalii for the Raiders and Sims and Taumalolo for the Cowboys. When Thurston went to the line and passed short for Taumalolo the Titans barely got a hand on him while the threat of Papalii on the right will be enhanced by the presence of Milford sweeping around the back. Expect the playmakers from both sides to go short early and test the defence but the set plays they have out the back as options later in the game will determine who makes the greatest inroads.
Where It Will Be Won: Despite their differing positions on the final ladder last year, little separated these two in many of the key defensive statistics, except one: the Cowboys conceded 18 points per game while the Raiders leaked 26. The Cowboys proved by shutting out the Warriors in their Auckland Nines semi-final win that Green's work at the defensive end is paying immediate dividends while conceding 34 points against the Knights in Tamworth was a sign there is more work to be done by Stuart's green machine.
Expect to see a much more composed and controlled Cowboys outfit in 2014 and Green will be desperate to see it start with an exemplary defensive display in Round 1.
The History: Played 32; Cowboys 13, Raiders 19. Prior to their Round 17 win last year, the Raiders had lost nine of their previous 11 meetings with the Cowboys. The Raiders have not beaten the Cowboys in Townsville since a Todd Carney field goal gave Canberra a 15-14 victory in Round 12, 2006.
What Are The Odds: No takers for the Raiders who at $3.50 with Sportsbet.com.au are at the biggest odds of any side to win in Round 1. Cowboys have been heavily backed into $1.30.
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Peter Gough; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Paul Mellor.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 9pm (AEDT).
The Way We See It: At home in 30-degree temperatures and with an almost perfect pre-season build-up under their belts, it is hard to see anything but a Cowboys victory. With David Shillington injured Canberra are missing some firepower up front to match Test front-rowers Matt Scott and James Tamou and all indications are that Johnathan Thurston is ready to carry his World Cup form into 2014. Cowboys by 16 points.
* Statistics: Champion Data
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