Schick Hydro Preview: Brisbane Broncos v North Queensland Cowboys
It is the grand final rematch that every Queenslander has been waiting for since Johnathan Thurston broke the hearts of Brisbane Broncos fans in the most dramatic of circumstances last October.
These teams played perhaps the greatest NRL grand final in the history of the competition in 2015, as the North Queensland Cowboys produced a modern day miracle to win 17-16 in extra-time.
Almost six months on, the Broncos are after redemption and the Cowboys are out to prove they are still the team to beat.
No longer the 'little brother' in Queensland, the Cowboys are intent on going back-to-back in 2016 and a win over the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium would be one giant step in the right direction.
The return of Lachlan Maranta from injury means Brisbane will be fielding a new-look backline, with not one winger or centre from the 2015 decider starting in the same position. The retirement of Justin Hodges and injuries to Corey Oates and Jack Reed has forced coach Wayne Bennett move his team around, with New Zealand International Jordan Kahu moving into the centres.
The Cowboys will field the same 17 for an eighth successive week and the message is clear from coach Paul Green – why change a winning formula?
Watch out Broncos: North Queensland fullback Lachlan Coote hit form in the Cowboys' big win against the Sydney Roosters in Round 3, producing two try assists and a try of his own in the 40-0 romp. Coote's combination with Thurston and Michael Morgan was a feature of the Cowboys' 2015 premiership run and the trio has carried on from where they left off. Thurston leads the competition on five line-break assists and if the four-time Dally M Medalist hits his stride he may take the game away from Brisbane single-handedly.
Watch out Cowboys: The Broncos won't admit it but they are hungry for revenge. Last year's defeat in the grand final hurt Brisbane and they will be looking to start fast on Friday night. The hosts will use their second-phase football to disorganize North Queensland's defence early. Brisbane's second phase has been a feature in the first three rounds, with the Broncos averaging nine offloads a game, triple that of the Cowboys. Expect this style of football to bring Anthony Milford into play. Milford has been on fire in the first three rounds of the competition. He has scored three tries in as many games and amassed 15 tackle breaks. The Cowboys will have to shut down the fleet-footed 21-year-old if they are to restrict Brisbane's point scoring.
Key match-up: Ben Hunt v Johnathan Thurston. The battle of the halfbacks will ultimately decide this game. Hunt has failed to hit the form that delivered him a top-five finish in the 2015 Dally M Medal count although he hasn't needed to with the form Milford is in. It will be a different story against the Cowboys; Hunt must be more involved if Brisbane are to get the win. He averages 1.3 try assists a game so far in 2016, while Thurston sits at 1.7 and his five line-break assists lead the competition. The most concerning aspect of Hunt's game at the moment is his lack of involvement – he is averaging just 26 passes a game. Thurston on the other hand is sitting at 45 passes a game, as he continues to take control of games and direct his troops around the park. Whichever halfback has better control of the contest on Friday night will ultimately guide their team to victory.
The history: Played 43; Broncos 29, Cowboys 12, Drawn 2. Brisbane have been dominant over their Queensland rivals in the long run and North Queensland have not won at Suncorp Stadium since Round 2, 2012, and never under coach Paul Green. Matt Bowen was the saviour that night, scoring in the 79th minute with a solo effort from the scrum that gifted the Cowboys a 28-26 win. North Queensland's last visit to Brisbane resulted in a 44-22 loss in Round 3 last year. They will have to defy history to get the two points come Friday night.
What are the odds: Broncos $1.62, Cowboys $2.30. There's been a big push for the Cowboys in the head-to-head market with the money running three to one in favour of the reigning premiers, according to Sportsbet. Both sides have been backed to win 1-12 so we might be in for another tight one. Greg Eden leads the first try-scorer market at $10.00. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee: Matt Noyen; Touch Judges: Michael Wise & Jeff Younis; Review Officials: Luke Patten & Steve Chiddy; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton
Televised: Channel 9 – Live coverage from 7:30pm (AEDT); Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7:30pm (AEDT).
The way we see it: These two teams are the benchmark of the NRL. The Good Friday clash promises to be a blockbuster and this game should go down to the wire as both teams will be desperate for victory. Brisbane need to bounce back from a disappointing loss to Penrith last weekend and we see them doing that in a very tight tussle. Broncos by 4.