Roosters v Cowboys
I had a theory a week out from the start of the Finals Series that I had trouble convincing anyone else of its merit, including Cowboys coach Paul Green.
After they defeated the Sea Eagles in Round 26 to move into fourth spot, I asked Green whether he preferred for the team to stay in fourth spot – and was thus rooting for a Warriors win in the final game of the season – or whether he'd be content for the Panthers to win, push his side back into fifth spot and host a final in Week One.
I admit, that was a lot to ask a guy 15 minutes after full-time, but my point was this: Momentum is everything at this time of year. I was theorising that the Cowboys may be better served having an extra week at home, be not disrupted by travel back and forth to Sydney and charge into Week Two on the back of a strong victory.
Better still, they would be facing an opponent licking their wounds after a tough loss and suddenly staring at the possibility of their season coming to an end after 80 more minutes of football.
This Friday night against the Roosters, they get the chance to prove my point.
Given they are the defending premiers and won a second consecutive minor premiership, the Roosters deserve their clear $1.48 favouritism with Sportsbet for Semi-Final 1 but they have injury and judiciary concerns and have to recover mentally and physically from going until the 79th minute and 55th second of their epic Qualifying Final loss to the Panthers.
Jared Waerea-Hargreaves escaped the ire of the match review committee for a dubious hit on Penrith prop Brent Kite, Aidan Guerra returns after serving a week on the sidelines but Dylan Napa has to hope his team advance one more week before he gets to play again. The availability of James Maloney (ankle) and Jake Friend will also be critical.
With Tariq Sims suspended and consequently having played his last game in Cowboys' colours, Glenn Hall comes into the starting side with Ethan Lowe on the bench.
Winger Kyle Feldt is under an injury cloud after having his ankle twisted in a Ben Barba tackle late in the game but despite any distractions the Cowboys look for all the world like a team that has shrugged off past finals disappointments given the way they started against the Broncos last week. They were 18-0 up inside 20 minutes and even though they conceded 20 second-half points, there was no Michael Maguire-type blast from Green, more acknowledgement that they had set up the win in such emphatic fashion with a near-flawless opening 40 minutes.
Watch Out Roosters: There is a spy within your ranks; at least, there was 12 months ago when you became the best rugby league club team in all the lands. As the under-20s coach at the Roosters last season and an assistant to head coach Trent Robinson, there is not an opposition coach in the NRL who would understand the secrets to the Roosters' success better than Cowboys mentor Paul Green. Combined with his own insight and method of delivery to his players that has already yielded consecutive Intrust Super Cup premierships with Wynnum Manly and the Auckland Nines title in his first few months at North Queensland, Green's intimate knowledge of the Roosters' inner workings is immensely valuable ahead of such a big game. He will spend the week telling reporters that the Cowboys are focusing only on themselves but his men will go into war having already been given a glimpse of the enemy's battle plan. The question is whether Robinson dares to mix things up or stick with what has been so effective for the past two years.
Watch Out Cowboys: Throughout his career Sonny Bill Williams has very much decided his own fate and there is no way he would have envisaged saying farewell to rugby league for a second time two weeks before the Grand Final is played. Prior to breaking his thumb against the Knights in Round 20, 'SBW' was averaging 130 metres per game but since his return that number has dropped to 105m. His influence in 2014 has been far less pronounced than it was 12 months ago but there have been signs over the past fortnight that he's not ready to pack his bags for rugby just yet. He came up with a season-high 37 tackles, forced an albeit dubious error from Jamal Idris and had five offloads against the Panthers while in Round 26 he and Mitchell Pearce terrorised South Sydney's left-edge defence. If the Cowboys want to play in Week Three, they're going to have go through Sonny.
Plays To Watch: When you've got Johnathan Thurston running at you with Matt Scott on his hip, Gavin Cooper ready to hit a hole back on the angle and Michael Morgan ready to test the sliding defence of the opposition with a charge onto an inside pass, who do you go for? That's the question the Roosters will be asked on numerous occasions on Friday night as the Cowboys attack the left edge that was so fruitful for them last weekend. The challenge for the Cowboys' defence will be to stay strong through the middle when the big Roosters forwards get a roll-on. That's when Mitchell Pearce's right-foot step is at its most deadly and when the likes of Tuivasa-Sheck, Minichiello and Jennings surge in support. No team is more adept at pushing numbers through the middle of the field when they have momentum than the Roosters and it has been the platform for the 2013 champions to score points in bunches all season.
Where It Will Be Won: With very little separating these teams statistically (first and second in tries scored, second and third in tries conceded), this contest shapes very much as one of individual brilliance against well-constructed set plays. Where the Roosters have seven players with more than 10 line breaks this season the Cowboys have just four and when it comes to laying on tries, the Cowboys triumvirate of Thurston, Lui and Morgan are responsible for 73 per cent of their team's 92 try assists. The Roosters, on the other hand (and allowing for Roger Tuivasa-Sheck's role at fullback in attack), rely on their Nos.1, 6 and 7 for just 57 per cent of their try assists. If the Roosters back their defensive unit to contain the Cowboys' well executed set plays, they have the strike across the park to punch holes at the other end.
History: Played 30; Roosters 21; Cowboys 9. As they did against the Broncos last week, the Cowboys blew the Roosters off the park when they last met in Round 10, opening up a 30-6 lead by half-time before going on to win 42-10. Quite incredibly, these two teams haven't met in Sydney since Round 9, 2010 where just 6,478 fans turned out on a Monday night to see the Cowboys triumph 32-14, the visitors also recording a 32-16 victory in 2009. The Roosters dominated the early days of this rivalry, winning 15 of the first 16 encounters but the Cowboys have the more recent ascendancy, with eight wins from the past 14 clashes.
Match Officials: Referee – Shayne Hayne; Assistant Referee – Gavin Badger; Touch Judges – Jason Walsh & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Bernard Sutton & Luke Patten.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm.
How We See It: The two form teams of the competition meet two weeks before the Grand Final; this will be nothing short of a blockbuster. There are myriad intriguing sub-plots to debate in the lead-up as the men from up north endeavour to rid themselves of the finals nightmares Allianz Stadium has inflicted over the past two seasons. The Roosters have suffered consecutive defeats just three times in the past two seasons while the Cowboys ride a four-game winning streak that they hope will deliver a Preliminary Final appointment with the Rabbitohs. Both teams are great front-runners so early points will be vital in a tense finale. Cowboys by four points.