Warriors brace for back-row blitz
On Saturday night the Warriors come up against arguably the best second-row combination in the NRL.
The men wearing jerseys 11 and 12 for the Cowboys are in career-best form, creating a threat on either side of the field which simply can’t be ignored.
On the right you have Gavin Cooper, a lanky eight-year veteran with 168 games under his belt. Hard-working and ultra-reliable, he averaged 87 metres per match last season along with 26 tackles.
This year, spurred on by captaining his side to the NRL Auckland Nines title in February, he is more lethal than ever with the ball in hand too.
While across the other side of the field lives one of the most dynamic young players in the game.
The subject of an eligibility war between Queensland and New Zealand before he had even turned 20, Jason Taumalolo has started 2014 in devastating fashion.
So far the 112kg-wrecking ball has busted through 13 tackles in the opening two matches, and most impressively is playing for the full 80 minutes.
“I reckon you could add Tariq Sims to that little trio too – you certainly can’t be backwards in coming forwards against those guys defensively. It’s a challenge for us,” said Warriors coach Matt Elliott.
Containing North Queensland’s big men would go a long way to winning the match at 1300SMILES Stadium, with Elliott believing their attacking strength could be used against them.
“They expend a lot of energy in attack, so we need to test them on the other side of the ball like they are going to test us,” he said.
That theory probably points to the reasoning behind starting Feleti Mateo at lock this weekend, ahead of the more defence-orientated John Palavi.
The men charged with stopping the Cowboys troublesome twosome are new import Jayson Bukuya, who will line up on Taumalolo, and captain Simon Mannering who will attempt to contain Cooper.
“I haven’t seen too many of their games this year, but I know Jason Taumalolo and Gavin Cooper are really good players,” Mannering said.
“They are two key guys for their team, so us two on the edge need to make sure we are defending strongly.”
In Mannering’s case the threat is doubled, given that standing next to Taumalolo in the line is a certain Johnathan Thurston, who has made a strong start to the year running off the Tongan World Cup star.
The tackle bags were receiving a pounding at Warriors training mid-week. Unsurprising given they have leaked 67 points in their first two games, this against Eels and Dragons teams who both scored under 16 per match on average last year.
“They [the Cowboys] are a pretty big team to put on their backside. But we defend our best when we are aggressive. We have to put our attention on being aggressive,” Elliott said.
Mannering added that the key to taking home the two points in Townsville, something the club hasn’t done since 2002, was to improve their defence both at the start and end of tackle counts.
“The frustrating thing is a few tries have come off the last tackle play. So for us it’s a matter of making sure we are in the position to get that bounce of the ball and help the back three out,” Mannering said.
“Hopefully if we can defend strongly then when we have the ball we won’t have to worry about too much. The important thing is make sure we have an even share of possession.”