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Cowboys v Storm
1300SMILES Stadium
Saturday, 7.30pm

Oh you have plans to hit the town Saturday evening, right? WRONG. The real party comes to you instead from 1300SMILES Stadium and boy is it going to be a rager!

Admittedly the guest list does have a few late scratchings, with Cooper Cronk in plaster, Billy Slater nursing a shoulder injury and Cameron Smith very unlikely given he finished up one of Origin's greatest ever contests on one leg, but there's still plenty to get excited about in what looms as a crucial clash for both these sides with the 2014 halfway point just around the bend.

Both clubs are at critical junctures after underwhelming starts to their respective seasons. The Cowboys are looking to climb the ladder and earn their place in the league’s elite while Melbourne are finally looking to hit full stride.

Melbourne’s two most recent wins, over quality opposition in Manly and South Sydney, have kick-started the perennial premiership contender to the doorstep of the top four after being mired in mediocrity for two months.

How they step up without at least one component of their Fab Four is the big question for the Storm, who have traditionally struggled when the Origin circus rolls into town. With Cronk out for at least two months Craig Bellamy faces yet another challenge in restructuring a side built around the champion half's steady hand and clinical brilliance, but while the playmaking cupboard down Melbourne way looks a tad bare if there's one NRL coach that can get lemonade out of a bag of dodgy lemons it's Bellyache.

Meanwhile, Cowboys coach Paul Green was far from pleased with the way his depleted side ended a three-game win streak in Canberra last Sunday, saying “We need to look at who we want to be as a team…we took a couple of steps backwards in that area”, on Monday’s arrival back in Townsville.

In team news there will be plenty of re-shuffling from the Storm with Origin trio Cronk, Slater and Smith watching fro the sidelines. A Ben Roberts-Tohu Harris halves combo looks the  most likely option with Ryan Hinchcliffe able to  to shift to hooker to cover the absence of Smith. Kurt Mann's preferred position is fullback, so he could well slot in at the back for Slater with Mahe Fonua able to come back into the centre, while Bellamy's back row and interchange options include Dayne Weston, Mitch Garbutt, Junior Moors and Tim Glasby.

For North Queensland, the full brigade returns provided they pull up okay after Origin. Stars Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott, Brent Tate and James Tamou are all named, while Scott Bolton moves from the front row to lock for the suspended Tariq Sims, Robert Lui moves back to the bench, and Jason Taumalolo starts for Glenn Hall, who will start from the interchange.

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Watch Out Cowboys: With their superstars either in doubt or watching from the sidelines, expect Melbourne's oh-so simple game plan to be boiled down to the bare essentials, and they don't come much simpler, or better, than big Kiwi bulldozer Jesse Bromwich. Getting a start at the club on the recommendation of little bru Kenny, the older Bromwich has grown (figuratively at least, can't get much bigger than 114 kilos and 194 centimetres) to become one of the NRL's form big men. His 1459 running metres are more than 200 better than the next best from the purple pack (Ryan Hoffman is next cab off the rank with 1222) and his 19 offloads are the third best from a prop this year, behind only Andrew Fifita at the Sharks (23) and the Warriors Ben Matulino (21). Should Bromwich and the rest of the Storm start generating the type of second-phase play that has them ranked third for offloads, they'll find enough avenues for points regardless of the Cowboys’ defensive capabilities.

Watch Out Storm: Melbourne has a choice. Either ramp up defensive pressure or be ready to do a lot of chasing. Demonstrating the uncharacteristic lack of defensive pressure Melbourne are putting on opponents this year, they are second-worst in the league for forcing errors. This is a club that has ranked top three in points allowed for the past 10 years straight! Another concern for Bellamy is their lack of defensive discipline – conceding the third most penalties in the competition.

In attack, they also need to pick moments with second-phase play as the Cowboys (82) have conceded 11 less offloads than any other club this season.

Plays To Watch: There is a stark contrast in the way these two sides get up and down the park. With North Queensland’s all-star front row leading the charge they are among the league leaders in hit-up runs (156), whereas Melbourne chose to go a more indirect route, having charged the line just 57 times all season (tied 2nd lowest). Much like individual sports such as boxing and tennis, this game could actually be won on match-ups and styles.

Where It Will Be Won: Give an inch and they will take a mile. These are two of the best attackers in the NRL and will capitalise on any half chance that comes their way. So it simply comes down to limiting those opportunities through ball security and possession. Anything below 80 per cent will get Bellamy’s heart rate through the roof, while the Cowboys will look to get somewhere near that 93 per cent mark that saw them run rings around Sydney two weeks ago.

History: Played 27; Storm 19, Cowboys 7, 1 draw. In the second of a seven-game win streak to start 2013, Melbourne came into Townsville and rocked an underdone Cowboys 32-10. Prior to that, however, the Cowboys escaped from AAMI Park with a four-point win in Round 19, 2012. In fact, neither team has won two consecutive head-to-heads since Round 8 2010. 1300SMILES Stadium has historically been a very happy hunting ground for Melbourne, walking away with 11 wins from 15 games in Townsville.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Adam Gee; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Michael Wise; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Reece Williams.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

The Way We See It: Away from the result, this will be one clinical game of rugby league. Regardless of the personnel changes you can pencil in is a nail-biter. Prior to Origin the Storm looked the likely winners but with their troops out we'll pump for the home team by 4 points.
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