Schick Hydro Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v St George Illawarra Dragons
Saturday, 6.30pm local
Cowboys beware, there is a distinct sense of déjà vu about the Dragons this year.
After losing their first two games of 2015 the Red V went on a run of six-straight wins to lead the competition at the end of eight rounds – and that picture is half complete after the Dragons eked out two impressive wins over the past fortnight following two losses to start the season.
They may not set the world on fire with attacking brilliance, but few can match them when a game becomes a grind.
The Cowboys' streak of consecutive games without a line-up change is over, with exciting outside back Javid Bowen set to make his NRL debut in place of Kane Linnett (shoulder injury) at left centre.
Dragons halfback Benji Marshall returns from a hamstring injury, pushing replacement Josh McCrone to 18th man.
Watch out Cowboys: While they have proved they can win in any type of game the Cowboys would be best served dictating terms early, before the Dragons make the contest an 80-minute arm-wrestle. The home side has both talent and continuity on its side this Saturday, but confidence levels may be a bit higher in the Red V camp after two hard-fought wins. Mitch Rein's return to form and the addition of Marshall – who historically plays well against the Cowboys – also gives the visitors a huge creative boost.
Watch out Dragons: Scoring has been a major issue for the Dragons, who have amassed the fewest points in the NRL over the first four weeks – 10 behind the second-worst Roosters. The Cowboys (third in points scored) have much more firepower, and with the spine in good form, are guaranteed to find ways to use it. Up front, tearaway 22-year-old Jason Taumalolo is a class above any other forward in the NRL for sheer destructive ability, and will ensure his side gets plenty of opportunity in the red zone.
North Queensland are also motivated to bounce back after last week's draining loss to the Broncos. "Everyone is still thinking about it. Watching vision the other day everyone was getting a bit fired up, so the boys will be ready to go," prop James Tamou said earlier this week.
Key match-up: Lachlan Coote v Josh Dugan. Put simply, if Coote gets the better of this fullback match-up then the visitors are in for a long night. Dugan has been the Dragons' X-factor since switching to fullback in Round 3, and has proven to be their best source of attack. If his influence can be mitigated the Cowboys will have checked off a large part of their to-do list.
The history: Played 26; Cowboys 14, Dragons 12. The premiers have had the better of recent history, winning four of the past five. The Cowboys have had no problem racking up scores either, averaging better than 25 points per game over that time.
What are the odds: The money is almost running 50/50 with Sportsbet but the Dragons are extremely popular in line betting, where they're receiving the points start. Both sides have been backed to win 1-12 so we could be in for a tight one in Townsville. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee: Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges: Adam Reid and Belinda Sleeman; Review Officials: Luke Patten and Jason Robinson.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7.30pm (AEDT).
The way we see it: Provided they start the game well the Cowboys should have far too much for the Dragons on Saturday night. They have started better than their 2-2 record suggests, and will be keen to find a rhythm after four rollercoaster rounds to begin the year. The Dragons will pose questions throughout the contest, but it will be a comfortable win for the hosts. Cowboys by 16.