Schick Preview: Parramatta Eels v North Queensland Cowboys
Saturday, 7.30pm (AEDT)
The premiers travel south to Western Sydney to face a side that – by all reports – should be a lot better in week two than they were in week one.
For all the fanfare over Kieran Foran's arrival it was a false start for the Kiwi Test pivot as a troublesome hammy didn't quite come up in time to face the Broncos.
The Eels tried hard and defended stoutly throughout that 17-4 loss but when star playmaker Corey Norman left the field injured at half-time they were never seriously in the hunt. Foran's inclusion alongside a fit Norman should result in a completely different blue and gold attacking structure this week.
He replaces back-up half Luke Kelly while the return of Danny Wicks from off-season shoulder surgery pushes Daniel Alvaro to 18th man.
For the premiers, no news is good news once again. The same 17 men who held the premiership trophy aloft last October – and who claimed the World Club Challenge in convincing fashion, then ground out a determined Sharks side last week – will once again run out unchanged.
It's also a pretty similar 17 to the one that overturned a 30-6 deficit in spectacular fashion last time the Cowboys visited Pirtek (sorry Eels fans) so continuity and belief certainly won't be a problem for Paul Green's men.
Watch out Eels: Countless column inches have been spent, both on this site and elsewhere, detailing the staggering achievements of the world's best player Johnathan Thurston. So for a change let's have a look at a man whose stocks continue to rise steadily and who arguably proved the difference last week in a close win over the Sharks: Ethan Lowe. The soon-to-be-25-year-old from Goondiwindi's defensive starch was a trademark of the Cowboys' run to the 2015 title but his range of skills in attack doesn't yet get the attention it deserves. His match-winning solo try last week was just rewards as it came on the back of 38 tackles and 143 metres.
Watch out Cowboys: All eyes will be on new captain and former Sea Eagle Kieran Foran in his first run at NRL level alongside in-form playmaker Corey Norman. Their only solid hit-out together came in the club's final pre-season trial against Penrith and, while that was only a trial, the signs were there that these two halves are prepared to consolidate predictable game plans to the bin and sweep around the park and feed off each other in attack. Assuming Foran (hamstring) and Norman (neck) do both line up come Saturday, don't be surprised to see them abandon the left side/right side format many sides run with to link up on both edges in attack with fullback Michael Gordon bobbing up wherever needed. The Cowboys will back their defence no matter what but they may have some fresh challenges on Saturday night.
Key match-up: Tepai Moeroa v Jason Taumalolo. These two young tyros should have a ripping battle in the middle. Taumalolo is a couple more years along in his development and his running game picked up where it left off last year when he churned through a match-high 181 metres with three tackle breaks. Moeroa's running game is both developing and underrated but he can certainly sting in defence and every one of his 37 tackles against the Broncos looked like it caused a bruise or two.
The history: Played 33; Eels 17, Cowboys 15, Drawn 1. Parramatta certainly had the better of the early exchanges between these two sides but it's all the Cowboys of late, the northerners taking six of the past seven meetings. They have an awful record at Pirtek (six wins from 20 overall) but have won two of their past three visits to the venue.
What are the odds: Sportsbet reports four times the money has been wagered on the premiers in comparison to the Eels in head-to-head betting, however when it comes to the winning margin punters are keen on both sides to get home by 1-12, suggesting we could be in for a close contest. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Jared Maxwell; Assistant Referee: Adam Gee; Touch Judges: Russell Turner and Ricky Macfarlane; Review Officials: Ben Galea and Jason Robinson; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm AEDT.
The way we see it: There's every reason to think the Eels will improve significantly from last week but whether they can improve enough to down the Cowboys juggernaut is another question. We're not tipping a blowout but on paper you'd have to think the Cowboys should be able to do enough to win this. North Queensland by six.