Rabbitohs v Cowboys
Set your 'faces to stun' for this one, there'll be more premiership muscle on show at ANZ Stadium this Saturday night than at a Romanian strongman contest as two of the NRL's form teams go head-to-head.
The Rabbits have long been the pride of the league, and right now there's a whole mess of mighty about them as well, with last week's 42-16 demolition of the Broncos capping a run of four wins in 17 days, and five undefeated weeks on the trot for the cardinal and myrtle.
Since dusting the Raiders back in Round 19, Souths have gone from strength to strength, with every cog of their monstrous engine room whirring away with brutal precision and cohesion, while halves Adam Reynolds and Luke Keary are guiding them around the park as if they've been doing it for years, not weeks. And out the back Greg Inglis leads a fleet of brand spanking new Ferraris just waiting to unleash and put the throttle down in open space.
All of which has Souths fans daring to believe that maybe, just maybe, the premiership thirst they've endured since before coach Michael Maguire was born could be quenched sooner rather than later.
The Cowboys themselves aren't travelling too shabbily either. Monday night's 23-22 loss to the Panthers at a soggy ol' Sportingbet Stadium was the first time in a month they haven't belted out their victory song, complete with their famous wheelie-bin percussion arrangement.
This puts them behind only Saturday night's opponents for wins since Origin III, a winning sequence that has shot them well into the reckoning for the finals, though Matt Moylan's 78th minute field goal to sink them on Monday means they're not home and hosed just yet.
North Queensland could dearly use a win over the Rabbits to not only push them a few rungs higher than the seventh spot they currently occupy on the NRL ladder, but also deliver some much needed confidence in their ability to perform at ANZ Stadium.
They may have broken through for their first win at the Olympic venue in eight years against the Bulldogs back in Round 20, but that still only counts for one win in eight years at the joint, and they'll have to get used to the place if they want to progress further into the finals than in campaigns of recent years.
In team news Rabbitohs second-rower Kyle Turner comes back from an injury, slotting in for the suspended Ben Te'o. Tariq Sims is back from suspension for the Cowboys, pushing Gavin Cooper back to the bench, and James Tamou is still nowhere to be seen.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: What do Justin Timberlake, Johnathan Thurston and Jason Taumalolo have in common? Admittedly, not a whole lot beyond sharing initials but those last two are in magnificent form for the Cowboys at the moment. 21-year-old Taumalolo has been filling out all that potential in his 191 cm 112 kilo frame rather nicely over the past month, breaking 22 tackles in his last four games, as well as a healthy 137 metres from 15 runs each outing. Weighing in almost 30kgs lighter, Thurston's contribution to the Cowboys resurgence has been no less significant. He's racked up eight line break assists and nine try assists in the past 30 days, and will be spoiling for a top shelf showing after being outpointed by Jamie Soward on Monday night.
Watch Out Cowboys: GI's back. Not that he'd ever really left, more just happily taken a backseat as young guns Walker, Keary and Johnston have rightly received plenty of plaudits in the Rabbitohs’ winning run. That is until Inglis exploded into life last weekend against the Broncos with the 10th hat-trick of his career and the single best individual performance of 2014 thus far. Three tries, 156 running metres, six tackle breaks, a try assist and a ripping try-saving tackle on Ben Barba to boot will all have whet the big man's appetite for a showdown with the Cowboys, an outfit he hasn't gone hungry against in five games going back to 2009, making for a very healthy strike-rate of 14 tries in 14 clashes with the North Queenslanders.
Plays To Watch: Inglis isn't just dangerous with the ball in hand, with all 195 centimetres of him making the Kangaroos star a prime target for Reynolds' midfield bombs in recent weeks. Against the Broncos Reynolds sent the ball up to the heavens twice in the second half and twice the towering fullback brought it down for a Rabbitohs try, so Cowboys custodian Michael Morgan can expect the tactic to get a similar workout come Saturday night, particularly after Penrith's Jamal Idris outmuscled him in their last-start loss.
Where It Will Be Won: As good as the red and green backline has been over the past five weeks, they've done so because of the grunt their forwards are packing up front, and it's here where the Cowboys have to match the Rabbitohs if they're to be any chance. Brisbane had their moments last week, and Manly fought a good fight for over an hour the week prior, but Souths’ power game is relentless, as seen in the fact they've scored the more tries (30) through the middle third of the field, more than any other team in the comp, while at the same time conceding the least four-pointers in the league, 12 down that same corridor. North Queensland face one hell of a task in shutting down the Rabbitohs' big men, and late in the game the fact they're on the short five-day turnaround could well become the deciding factor.
The History: Played 25; Rabbitohs 13, Cowboys 11, 1 drawn. The Cowboys are gunning for their third win on the trot against Souths, but this shouldn't mask the fact their efforts against the red and green have had plenty of Elmer Fudd about them, with those ‘wascally wabbits’ coming up trumps in 8 of their last 11 meetings.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet haven’t been hearing from Cowboys fans at all in this one, with their side $2.77. Nearly all of the betting action has been on South Sydney ($1.47) at the line, even though they’re conceding 8.0 points start. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Chris Butler; Touch Judges – Steve Carrall & Brett Suttor; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Ben Galea.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live, 7.30pm.
How We See It: The Cowboys have the talent and the game breakers to trouble Souths, and any side with Thurston amongst its ranks has to be treated with respect. But with the short turnaround, the sheer physicality of the Bunnies’ big boppers and Greg Inglis's brilliance bubbling away at the back, the Rabbitohs are just about irresistible in the type of form they're showing at the moment. Rabbitohs by 6.