Bulldogs v Cowboys
"It was good to get the monkey off the back," said Paul Green after North Queensland broke through for their first win away from Townsville in 320 days. With all due respect to the former Maroons halfback and his knowledge of the primate kingdom, that was no ordinary monkey hanging off of the Cowboys for the best part of 11 months.
That was one of those supercharged, machine-gun toting, horse-back riding brutes from Matt Reeves's Dawn of the Planet of the Apes, and at that, it was the biggest and ugliest of the bunch. And despite putting the Sharks away 36-18 without ever looking like either clicking into gear or being seriously troubled, that damn dirty ape will be riding shotgun again with the Cowboys as they travel to a venue they haven't won at since 2006. To put their nine consecutive losses to the Rabbitohs and Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium in perspective, the last time the Cowboys won at the Olympic stadium, Johnathan Thurston was only just in his second year at North Queensland, and John Howard's eyebrows were still representing Australia on the world stage.
Not exactly helping their cause is the fact that the Bulldogs were unexpectedly towelled up by the Tigers last weekend, with the likes of Luke Brooks, Mitch Moses and Blake Austin running the Dogs' big men ragged in the 46-18 thumping.
Des Hasler may have taken aim at the officials immediately after the match, but his charges will no doubt have copped both barrels during the week for the flat and listless defensive effort that saw them concede more points than ever before in Hasler's three years at the club. Their pack will have been stung by the fact that not a single one of the forwards cracked the tonne for running metres against the Tigers, a statistical anomaly that previously hadn’t occurred in 2014, and they'll be keen to resume their regular transmission of grinding the opposition into submission against a Cowboys pack still without star prop Matt Scott.
In team news the Cowboys will take the same 17 on the road as they did last week, while the Dogs have named Origin rep Josh Morris to return from injury and Moses Mbye in the halves. The Bulldogs pack also gets a bit of a revamp, with Josh Jackson switching back into the second row, Greg Eastwood shifting to lock, and Sam Kasiano moving up front in the absence of Tim Browne.
Watch Out Bulldogs: At 194 cm and 113 kilos, opposition teams don't need James Tamou getting any larger, but that's exactly what the biggest Cowboy of them all has done in the absence of fellow Origin front row pillar Scott. In the three games Tamou has suited up for North Queensland without Scott alongside him, he has run for an average of 170 metres per game, 30 more than his regular 2014 output, and made an average nine more tackles per match, 31 per game versus 23. The visitors will need more of the same from big Jimmy if they're to trouble the Bulldogs and their marauding monster pack.
Watch Out Cowboys: Attacking opportunities may have dried up after 20 minutes against the Tigers, but that was all it took for Trent Hodkinson to confirm he's grown about a foot (in confidence if not stature) off the back of NSW's series win. The sight of Hodkinson taking the pill to the line down their right edge so early last weekend should have the Cowboys on high alert, particularly given Thurston's defensive frailties (44 missed tackles) this year, while the four-pointer Hodkinson laid on for Corey Thompson by grubbering through the line on the run was the sign of a half well aware that he's at the top of his game.
Plays To Watch: Thurston and offsider Robert Lui got a positive return by peppering Sharks custodian Michael Gordon last week with probing kicks and a pack of dogged chasers, and interim Bulldogs fullback Mitch Brown can expect a similar examination come Saturday night. Brown has been a mixed bag at the for the Dogs since stepping in for the injured Sam Perrett - book ending a stellar showing against the Storm with forgetful ones against Manly and the Tigers - and there's simply none better in the game than Thurston when it comes to testing out a fullback's positional play and courage under the fire of an aerial assault.
Where It Will Be Won: The final 10 minutes. Believe it or not despite being six points short of the Bulldogs on the competition ladder, the Cowboys have them well and truly covered on points differential, with their + 78 for and against far superior to the top of the class Dogs' + 38. The reason? Well, put plainly, the Bulldogs have proved by winning seven of their nine games that have been decided by less than six points, that they have the fortitude to sink a match-winning play. In dropping six of the eight games where the final margin is a converted try or less, the Cowboys have not. Against the best in the business and some 2,071 km from the green, green grass of home, all eyes will be on the Cowboys key men; Thurston, Morgan and Lui should the game be in the balance come the 70-minute mark.
The History: Played 31: Bulldogs 21, Cowboys 10. Probably best for Cowboys fans, particularly the kiddies, to skip this section. As previously stated the visitors record at ANZ reads uglier than a breakfast buffet after Sam Kasiano's finished with it, and their history against the Dogs doesn't get any prettier; they're one from seven against the blue and whites over the last five years.
What Are The Odds: Punters have been very forgiving of the Bulldogs’ ($1.55) disappointing showing against the Tigers, with money flowing 2:1 in favour of the home side, with the Cowboys out at $2.45. The money is even more significant for the Dogs at -4.5, and 13+. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Televised: Fox Sports, live 7.30pm.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Alan Shortall; Touch Judges – Steve Carrall & Dave Ryan Video Referees – Chris Ward & Luke Phillips.
The Way We See It: One away win does not a hoodoo break as far as the Cowboys are concerned, and they'll be well and truly aware of it in taking on a Bulldogs outfit keen to atone for their poor last start against the Tigers. The visitors possess enough strike power in Thurston and Morgan at the back to keep them in the contest, but the Dogs look to have to just too much power upfront, and should return to their grinding, and ultimately winning ways. Bulldogs by six points.