Cowboys v Roosters
Saturday 8pm (AEST)
Make no mistake, this isn’t your feel-good, friendly season opener. While this is only Round 1, it signals redemption time for those up north as they look to get one back on the side that put an end to their 2014 campaign.
The cause for optimism has never been higher in North Queensland, and their premiership window is as open as it has ever been as the club enters its 20th season in the National Rugby League.
But just as classy are the boys from the big city, who are again tipped to feature prominently in 2015. They may have lost superstars Anthony Minichiello and Sonny Bill Williams, but the league’s best attacking team last year will find new ways to cross the white line with the addition of dynamic outside back Blake Ferguson and a shift of winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck to fullback in place of Minichiello.
There is enough jockeying for position in North Queensland right now to rival Parliament, with the most intriguing aspect being the battle to fit four players (Johnathan Thurston, Michael Morgan, Robert Lui and Lachlan Coote) into three jerseys (1, 6 and 7). Paul Green has opted for the tried and tested combinations in week one, meaning Coote will have to feel his way into 2015 from the bottom of the pecking order.
Green has inserted Cowboys debutant and former Melbourne Storm flyer Justin O’Neill into a starting spot next to Matthew Wright, who plays his first game since suspension. Ben Hannant gets the nod over a recovering James Tamou at starting prop, while youngster Ethan Lowe also gets a start at second row.
The Roosters will go into battle without injured co-captain Jake Friend, who will be replaced by Roosters debutant Matt McIlwrick at hooker. Tuivasa-Sheck will move to fullback replacing Minichiello, while Ferguson has pushed Kiwi international Shaun Kenny-Dowall onto the wing as he makes his NRL return in the centres.
Watch Out Cowboys: What are we going to see from Blake Ferguson? At just 24, Ferguson has already come 360-degrees in his NRL career. Known for being fleet of foot and strong at the line, Ferguson is a gifted athlete who will be waiting for an opportunity to present itself on the right side. It will be interesting to see how the chemistry he has sparked with playmakers Mitchell Pearce, James Maloney and Tuivasa-Sheck in the off-season translates to Saturday night.
Watch Out Roosters: Talent presents itself all over the park for the Cowboys, and there is no better man to access it than the puppeteer himself – a refreshed and re-energised Johnathan Thurston. In a season that saw him share Dally M honours with Jarryd Hayne, Thurston blitzed the competition in try assists (eight more than any other player) and line break assists (four more). If we can gauge anything from pre-season trials it's that Thurston is fit and ready to fire.
Key Match-Up: The bruise brothers Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Sam Moa up against veteran bookends in Matt Scott and Ben Hannant. These big men will be crucial in paving the way for their halves to create opportunities close to the line. It will be an interesting dynamic of discipline, with Waerea-Hargreaves liking to push the boundaries, conceding penalties (2014 season high 34) at a rate of more than four times his colleague Moa (seven) last year. The two Cowboys in the middle offer more of a calming presence with just 11 penalties conceded throughout 2014.
The History: Played 31; Roosters 22, Cowboys 9. It was a semi-final for the ages last time these two faced off, with an almighty Cowboys comeback stopped just short of success by a Maloney field goal. Last season’s match-up was split one game apiece with North Queensland prevailing earlier in May.
What Are The Odds: Cowboys $1.70, Roosters $2.15. Not much separate the teams with the punters wagers, Roosters slightly ahead as the outsiders. The Cowboys are standout favourites at a -2.5 line. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Jared Maxwell. Assistant Referee: Chris Sutton; Touch Judges: Jeff Younis and Adam Reid; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 8pm (AEST)
The Way We See it: The Roosters showed their explosive scoring ability when they stormed out to a 30-0 lead after half an hour in last year’s semi-final; largely exploiting the Cowboys’ weak right-edge defence. While the returning Matthew Wright will look to patch up that deficiency, the right side is still a relative unknown with O’Neill, Lowe and Lui occupying spots either side of him. In a Round 1 toss of the coin, we say Cowboys by two points.