Holden Cup Qualifying Final
North Queensland Cowboys v Brisbane Broncos
It's the curtain-raiser to one of the most anticipated Queensland derbies in NRL history, but this Holden Cup battle of second versus third will be worth the price of admission alone.
A large Suncorp Stadium crowd will be thrust into the future on Saturday evening as the next generation of NRL stars go toe-to-toe, featuring the likes of Cowboys record try-scorer Gideon Mosby (34 tries in 23 games this year), Coen Hess and Broncos pair Jayden Berrell and Jai Arrow.
Fresh off claiming the club championship, North Queensland has shown its capacity to scout and nurture young talent with a second-place finish in the under-20s and third place in the Telstra Premiership.
The Broncos will be heavily hampered by the losses of superstar halves and junior Kangaroos Ashley Taylor and Jayden Nikorima, who have combined for 19 tries and 44 try assists this year.
They will be replaced by Will Brimson and utility Logan Spaander, who has played just seven Holden Cup games all year.
Centre Jordan Drew also returns in a boost to the outside backs after sitting out their 48-12 thumping at the hands of Melbourne.
North Queensland had the luxury of resting four of their most damaging players last week in flashy fullback Kalyn Ponga, five-eighth Kyle Laybutt, prop Viliame Kikau and rangy second-rower Coen Hess.
The talent-stripped Cowboys side went down 30-20 in the last round of the competition to the Titans, surrendering the minor premiership to Penrith.
Watch Out Broncos: Scoring 90 more points this season than anyone else in the competition, the Cowboys have artillery aplenty. Dynamic fullback Kalyn Ponga always gets sets off to a good start but the main player in the field position battle is Viliame Kikau. The 20-year-old front-rower, who leaves a trail of destruction similar to Jason Taumalolo, has bagged 20 tries this year, registering 126 tackle breaks and 21 line breaks along with 13 turnover tackles. Kikau provides the grunt while the crafty pair – eerily similar in name to a certain Melbourne Storm duo – Cooper Bambling and Brandon Smith put the polish on sets. Along with 26 try assists, Bambling is the Cowboys' chief kicker with six per game, while Smith has laid on 15 assists of his own and is no stranger to exploring out of dummy-half with more than six runs per game.
Watch Out Cowboys: With regular halves Ashley Taylor and Jayden Nikorima missing through injury a lot of the attacking responsibility will fall on Broncos fullback Paul Byrnes. Byrnes is more than capable of filling the void having had Intrust Super Cup experience with the Redcliffe Dolphins but doing it with half of Brisbane's first choice 'spine' missing is a different kettle of fish. The 20-year-old has 12 tries from 18 games this season and has also chipped in with 19 line breaks, 11 try assists and 20 goals. The Townsville Brothers junior will need to produce a big performance if the Broncos are to get over the line without Taylor and Nikorima.
Key Match-up: Brandon Smith v Jayden Berrell. The clash of the hookers shapes as a crucial one and even more so for the Broncos' sake without their regular halves on deck. Berrell is the cog that keeps Brisbane together with the way he dictates play from dummy-half and Broncos NYC coach Craig Hodges is expecting the former Queensland under-18s representative to deliver the goods. The 20-year-old has 16 line breaks and 16 try assists from 23 games this season and averages 60 metres and 29 tackles per game. Meanwhile, Kiwi-born rake Brandon Smith has had a breakthrough season with the club after first being courted by the Cowboys as a 14-year-old in 2011. Smith has played 18 games in 2015 for a return of 12 tries, 19 line breaks and 15 try assists while averaging almost 20 more running metres per game than his opposite number.
History: These sides have met twice already this season with the Broncos winning on both occasions, 30-26 in Round 3 and 44-10 in Round 10. Brisbane's under-20s were losing grand finalists in 2014, while the Cowboys went down in the 2011 decider – with both teams playing against the Warriors on grand final day. Brisbane's record in 2015 stands at 17 wins, one draw and six losses (with two of those coming in the past fortnight), while the Cowboys finished the regular season with 19 wins, one draw and four defeats.
Match Officials: Referee: Jon Stone; Assistant Referee: Phil Henderson; Touch Judges: Belinda Sleeman and Anthony Eliott; Video Referees: Chris Butler and Steve Folkes.
How We See It: It takes just one statistic to see that there is one Holden Cup side that is a level above. The Cowboys can boast a +471 points differential at the end of 26 rounds, with the next best being the minor premiers Penrith (+340). Ash Taylor and Jayden Nikorima are the Broncos' lifeblood in this competition and their absences will hit the home side too hard to recover. By far the league's best attacking side, the Cowboys – with a fresh 'fab four' – should run riot over the Broncos, whose attack has been ravaged by injury. Cowboys by 16 points.