North Queensland Cowboys v Melbourne Storm
Monday 6pm (local)
Just like those kids who occasionally make the news for finding their way into one of those arcade claw machines, the Cowboys are stuck and don't exactly know what to do about it.
It was all fun and games in the pre-season, with 20-point wins and a fully fit roster chock-full of selection headaches ready for head coach Paul Green to attack with confidence and optimism.
Fast forward a month and those headaches are taking a different shape. Green is now thinking about which players he needs to cut and how that confidence can be restored before things start getting away.
North Queensland opened the turnstiles last week for Brisbane to pile on 44 points – the most they've conceded in a game since Melbourne put 58 points on them in June 2010 – while the Storm are going about their business of rolling end-of-season success into 2015.
If the Cowboys needed any extra motivation, they have it with winger Antonio Winterstein returning from personal leave following the death of his younger brother Francis. Matthew Wright joins him on the opposite wing, which pushes Justin O'Neill and Kyle Feldt out of the side.
Craig Bellamy's Storm will run on unchanged from last week.
Watch Out Cowboys: Any side with Kiwi international Jesse Bromwich up front is a formidable one. The 25-year-old is going from strength to strength, averaging 155 metres per game at 9.4 metres per carry; while fellow bookend Jordan McLean is becoming a force in his own right. After playing a bit-part role filling positional voids off the bench in 2014, McLean is managing a starter's workload this season and has already earned accolades as a player punching above his weight.
Who would have thought that a front-row partnership boasting 26 Test caps would have to watch its back in a club game? Such is the current form of internationals Matt Scott and James Tamou, they have been outmuscled by lesser packs on paper in all three games so far. The expectation from coach Green this week is for both to step up, win back the middle third and play bodyguard for the already banged-up Thurston. Scott has worn himself out quicker during games this season with increased defensive load, managing 20 fewer run metres per game and doubling his missed tackle count from last season. Tamou has run for 10 fewer metres and has had some howling misses of his own, letting slip both Ben Hunt and Josh McGuire on the goal line for Brisbane's opening two tries last week.
Watch Out Storm: It doesn't matter what year it is, the Cowboys will probably play the mystery card until they turn it on around the back end of Origin; who knows what we will get week-in, week-out until then. And that in itself poses a threat to the Storm. North Queensland have nothing working at the moment, so that spark of inspiration could come from any direction at any time. It all starts in the middle and they no doubt have a pack salivating at the chance to re-write headlines. The Cowboys have already proven that they can dominate when rolling the ruck this year, but untimely errors and penalties have killed off momentum in quick time. It is all about discipline for the home side and keeping the chin up during scoreless periods.
Key Match-Up: Rory Kostjasyn vs Cameron Smith. The Storm are tied for fourth in fewest points conceded this season (46) and are well on their way to becoming the stingy defensive unit of old. Smith is as good as any hooker in the NRL at directing his troops and controlling tempo, and it's up to former apprentice Kostjasyn to keep his side just as tight up the middle. On attack, the Cowboys' pack needs to start asserting dominance, and it starts with good direction out of dummy half.
The History: Played 27; Cowboys 8, Storm 19. In the midst of Melbourne's most injury-ravaged period in over a decade, North Queensland sauntered to a 22-0 win last time these two met. Wins have alternated over the last five games between the two, preceded by eight straight Storm wins dating back to 2006.
What Are The Odds: Cowboys $1.80 Storm $2.05. Punters have abandoned the Cowboys after two home defeats. More than three times the money has been invested on the Storm, who looked impressive against the Sharks last week. Marika Koroibete has been by far the best backed to score the first try of the game. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Ben Cummins. Assistant referee: Henry Perenara. Touch judges: Russell Turner & Adam Gee. Video referees: Jared Maxwell & Steve Folkes.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 6pm (AEST)
The Way We See It: The nine-day turnaround may have been a blessing for North Queensland, but what's certain is that with Penrith and Souths coming knocking over the next two weeks, the Cowboys will start to get very desperate very soon if they lose this. Bellamy has numerous players punching above their weight in the early season, and we are tipping that to continue. Storm by 4 points.