Schick Hydro Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v Sydney Roosters
Thursday, 7.05pm local
This match is like a scene from The Karate Kid – Mr Miyagi against a young Ralph Macchio – and it's the ultimate test for the Roosters' future stars to step up to the plate against one of the league's most stable, veteran groups.
Cowboys star Johnathan Thurston has tasted success, failure and everything in between – he's been to the top of the mountain, fallen back down and clawed his way back over a long and illustrious career to date. Compare that with those in the playmaking roles for the visitors, youngsters Jackson Hastings and Jayden Nikorima, and it's clear the 'master v apprentice' vibe is strong in this one.
The lack of composure and direction was evident for the Roosters last week without club leaders Mitchell Pearce, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Boyd Cordner, with a win against Canberra slipping out of their grasp late in the game. Last year's minor premiers will want to get things back on track sooner rather than later; while the season is meant to be a process of building and improving, early wins count just the same as those which come in July.
Rain was promised but never arrived in the Cowboys' Round 1 match against the Sharks, but with the monsoon trough hanging over North Queensland, the chance of a dry track is slim.
Watch out Cowboys: The Roosters came out of the blocks gun ablaze in Canberra last week, with front-rowers Kane Evans and Dylan Napa leading the charge. North Queensland were the polar opposite at Pirtek Stadium last weekend, stumbling out of the blocks and being out-enthused by a physical Eels pack determined to dish out the hurt. With 189 metres from 18 carries last week, expect Napa's good form to continue as he aims to impress against a pair of representative props, but the Roosters' X-factor is certainly Sio Siua Taukeiaho. Averaging just 118 run metres and 25 tackles per game in 2015, the fleet-of-foot lock forward has found another gear to average 147 metres and 29 tackles in his first two games this year. Isaac Liu opened 2016 in the No. 13 jersey, but it took all of one game for Taukeiaho to snatch it back.
Watch out Roosters: The Cowboys are both stacked with talent and coming off a humbling defeat; both of which will sound the warning signals in Sydney. Admittedly, the premiers have not looked their sharpest over the first two weeks of the season, but neither has fellow Queensland premiership contender Brisbane. Regardless of the conditions, the Cowboys will not drop as much ball as they did in Parramatta on Saturday – likely the whole season. Despite Matt Scott's slow start to 2016, North Queensland's pack is expected to overpower the visitors', which will lay the platform for Thurston and improved ball player Michael Morgan to put the polish on sets. The Cowboys also boast a high-calibre kicking game, which will be useful in the wet.
Key match-up: Johnathan Thurston v Jackson Hastings. Put simply, the Roosters halves are the future, but Thurston is the now. Hastings (21 NRL games) is the most experienced Roosters half, but his numbers in comparison with Thurston's 270 NRL games and 30+ Queensland and Kangaroos caps.
The history: Played 32; Cowboys 9, Roosters 23. The Cowboys won just one of their first 16 matches against the Roosters, but have gone 6-4 over the past 10 meetings, with their most notable match-up the Roosters' 31-30 semi-final win which saw then-Cowboy Robert Lui knock it on at the death.
What are the odds: There has been 50 per cent more money wagered on the Cowboys in the head-to-head market, with a 13+ win to the premiers easily the best backed winning margin. Antonio Winterstein is Sportsbet's most popular player in the first try-scorer market. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee: Matt Noyen; Touch Judges: Nick Beashel and Ricky MacFarlane; Review Officials: Luke Patten and Steve Chiddy
Televised: Channel Nine (Live) – 7.00pm AEST; Fox Sports (Live) – 6.30pm AEST.
The way we see it: The Roosters fought gallantly against the in-form Canberra Raiders last week, but their inexperience showed late in the game when they failed to engineer and field goal that would have likely put away the Green Machine. On the other hand, the league's most structured team rarely misses an opportunity to strike. We see this going only one way. Cowboys by 14.