North Queensland Cowboys v South Sydney Rabbitohs
This is the time of year when premiership contenders will want to start flexing their muscle. They don't want to peak too early but they also want to ensure that they can play football at their highest level before September comes.
Both sides will be desperate to atone for their last-start losses, with Cowboys coach Paul Green stating that Thursday cannot come quick enough for his side.
After being left out of what many consider a three-horse premiership race, South Sydney have voiced their thoughts on the matter and will be keen to not just bounce back from a toweling at the hands of Manly, but prove they are in the thick of premiership conversation.
Green welcomes back main man in the middle Matt Scott after the representative bookend was rested against the Sharks last week. His inclusion pushes fellow veteran Ben Hannant back to the bench in an otherwise unchanged lineup.
Souths mentor Michael Maguire gets a huge boost to his playing stocks with the return of young outside back Kirisome Auva'a after a 312-day spell away from the game. The premiership-winning centre has been added to a seven-man bench but is likely to be thrown right into the fire on Thursday. In other team news, Kyle Turner returns from a massive scare against Penrith two weeks ago and will replace the suspended Glenn Stewart, while Nathan Brown replaces Chris Grevsmuhl.
Watch Out Cowboys: Greg Inglis is a huge reason why the Rabbitohs lead the league in line breaks this season (89). Along with his individual brilliance, Inglis gets his side on the front foot before a single tackle is made. When he returns kick-offs, the fullback invariably makes half breaks that gets defences on the back foot from the get-go. Hooker Issac Luke's effective dummy-half scoots often come as a result of Inglis' impact earlier in the tackle count. Not only does Inglis get his side on the front foot from kick returns, he also will chip in for hit-ups in the middle of the tackle count if he senses his forwards need a breather. As much as his running game is talked about (ranked ninth in the league for tackle busts), Inglis (16) is second in the league behind Johnathan Thurston for line-break assists.
Watch Out Rabbitohs: If Souths pack performs like it did last week against Manly, they will be getting a rude shock on Thursday night. The Cowboys big men don't take too kindly to being outmuscled, which was the case last week against the Sharks, so the Rabbitohs need to be on guard. Thanks to the likes of Matt Scott, James Tamou, Jason Taumalolo and underrated performer Scott Bolton, the Cowboys rank first in the competition for post-contact metres (614 metres per game). Although the Cowboys don't offload much, they still rank first for support runs with 127 per game.
Key Match-Up: Johnathan Thurston v Adam Reynolds. The Bunnies are simply at their best when halfback Adam Reynolds is playing well. They dearly missed his attacking punch in the Cowboys' Round 6 win, with ball-playing second-rower Glenn Stewart filling in next to Luke Keary. With nine try assists and four line-break assists, statistics don't do justice to what Reynolds offers his side. With the likes of fullback Greg Inglis and crafty hooker Issac Luke, Reynolds does not have to be the star of the show, but where he really comes into his own is late in sets. With Keary still honing his kicking game, Reynolds (365 kicking metres per game) provides that touch of class with the boot – from both long and short range – that the Bunnies so desperately need. For his individual standards, Thurston has had three sub-par weeks in a row. The Dally M favourite will relish the chance to play in front of a national audience and look to add to his 24 try assists and 23 line-break assists.
The History: Played 27; Cowboys 13, Rabbitohs 13, Drawn 1. Although the Rabbitohs have been a more successful team over recent seasons, North Queensland have been the side having success in this matchup. The Cowboys have won the last four consecutive games against Souths dating back to 2013, but prior to that the Bunnies had won four straight of their own.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet punters are keen on the relatively large price on offer for the Rabbitohs, with more dollars staked on South Sydney to cause the upset. However, there have been slightly more individual bets placed on the Cowboys in the head to head market. Latest opdds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Ben Cummins. Assistant Referee: Gavin Badger. Touch Judges: Nick Beashel and Chris Sutton. Video Referees: Ashley Klein and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm
The Way We See it: The Cowboys have had a surprisingly poor home record relative to their out-of-town performances, but they seem to match up well with Souths, and have a +50 points differential over their past four encounters. With the addition of Matt Scott to the home side's forward pack, we see the Cowboys neutralising the Rabbits up the middle and showing a bit too much class on the outers. Cowboys by 8.