Melbourne Storm v North Queensland Cowboys
Can you smell that? Finals football is in the air and Saturday night shapes as the perfect appetizer to the big dance.
A week is a long time in this cut-throat competition and no team understands that more than Melbourne who in the space of a week went from a premiership hopeful to potential finals also-rans.
The Storm now need a miracle to make the top four after falling to the bottom-placed Knights on Monday night in a game in which Craig Bellamy conceded his side was never really up for the fight.
After trailing 16-0 early on in New Zealand the Cowboys found a way to rally in convincing fashion for a 50-16 win to snap their two game losing run.
However the price that had to pay could have a crippling effect on the premiership hopes. Both Michael Morgan (ankle) and James Tamou (neck) have been ruled out indefinitely, leaving North Queensland needing to scramble frantically to fill the significant void left the two men who have been so vital to their side's success this season.
Ray Thompson has been named as Morgan's replacement in what looms as a game-defining battle in the halves against Cooper Cronk and Blake Green. Ben Hannant will move to prop in Tamou's absence.
Watch Out Storm: Melbourne's strength lies in their ability to control the football. However on Monday night that was taken away from them by the Knights who controlled as much as 68 per cent of possession approaching half-time as they built an insurmountable 12-point lead. This week the face an opposition who, like themselves, looks to make the football their own. The Cowboys have been on the wrong end of the possession count just one in their last 10 games and have enjoyed as much as 65 per cent of the football in five of their last six outings.
Watch Out Cowboys: Both Cooper Cronkand Cameron Smith had horror games against Newcastle. Cronk threw an intercept pass that led directly to a try while Smith's out-on-the-full kick from inside his own 40 in the closing stages all but ended the Storm's chances. Such a poor showing from the two champions was so rare that you can bet Saturday night can not come quick enough for them to make amends. Rarely do you see them play two bad games in a row, which gives the visitors all the more reason to be in their face rom the outset.
Key Match-Up: Cooper Cronk v Jonathan Thurston. These two halfbacks have more creative genius in their fingertips that most would dream of. Thurston leads the NRL in try assists (25 in total), almost twice as many as Cronk (13) but the Storm halfback will be in no mood to take a backward step given he was shown up by Tyrone Roberts on Monday night. The Maroons pairing will again take centre stage on the weekend but on this occasion will be leader their teams to completely opposite outcomes.
The History: Played 28; Storm 19, Cowboys 9. Melbourne hold comfortable sway in the head-to-head but recent times it is North Queensland who have emerged victorious, winning three of the past four.
What Are The Odds: The money has dried up on the Storm since Monday night's loss to the Knights. There has been 10 times more money put on the Cowboys to win this one than Melbourne, and Sportsbet punters aren't afraid to back the Cowboys 13+ either. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Ben Cummins. Assistant Referee: Alan Shortall. Touch Judges: Steve Carrall & Adam Reid. Video Referees: Bernard Sutton & Ben Galea.
Televised: Fox Sports – LIVE from 7.30pm AEDT
The Way We See It: So much is at stake for both teams but injuries this time of the year are bad news. Add this to some extensive travel and the Cowboys may get pipped in another close one. Storm by 2.