Schick Hydro Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v Brisbane Broncos
You know it's a special kind of rivalry when the game dwarfs an individual milestone as great as Johnathan Thurston's 250th for North Queensland.
Thurston is one of the greatest to ever play our sport, yet all we can think about is two of the league's powerhouses coming together once more, the explosive abilities of Michael Morgan and Anthony Milford, the colossal clash between State of Origin bookends and the sheer volume of representative talent ready to push their final cases before State of Origin teams are announced.
The two most recent match-ups between these teams have gone to golden point extra time, so heck, why not make it three? These sides possess the most electric attacks in the competition, yet defence has been the order of the day in recent encounters. Such a game is guaranteed to be won by a moment or two, and both teams have equally as much firepower to manufacture them. It's just up to which can hold their nerve the longest.
The hosts have named an unchanged side for the fifth game in a row, while the Broncos get back some bigtime talent in Andrew McCullough, Alex Glenn and Adam Blair, which pushes Jai Arrow, Herman Ese'ese and Travis Waddell out of the side.
Watch out Cowboys: The NRL's second-best defensive team followed by the best is a probably a challenge North Queensland did not want in the lead-up to State of Origin. Just one game ago they were atop NRL.com's power rankings, but they've started sliding and could slip further in the rankings with a loss this week. They were victims of their own frustration not just last week, but at Suncorp Stadium in Round 4, and Johnathan Thurston has questioned whether the group has learned to cope with missed opportunities. The Cowboys cannot afford that again if they want to beat the league's best, home or away. Brisbane boasts the fewest points conceded of any team this season, so it is up to 'JT' to keep his men calm and take the few chances when presented.
Watch out Broncos: The Cowboys' right edge had the Broncos in fits last time they played. When in need of points in the big moments the Cowboys head right these days, and it's not hard to see why. With the maturation of the Morgan-Ethan Lowe combination and speed of Justin O'Neill and Kyle Feldt on the outside, Thurston is now devoting his attention to organising his athletes on that side of the ground. Combining the grand final and Round 4, five of the six Cowboys tries came from the right-hand side, so the Broncos need the returning Glenn to slot straight back in and glue that left edge together.
Key match-up: Lachlan Coote v Darius Boyd. We could be talking about a contest of Origin custodians here, with Coote publicly endorsed by NSW coach Laurie Daley and Boyd beating Greg Inglis to the Kangaroos fullback spot in Rep Round. Both are genuine playmaking fullbacks who frequently link up in attack (seven try assists for Coote, five for Boyd), but the Cowboy has arguably the more rounded skill set, while Boyd is stronger and more athletic. Coote (43 kicks this season) is the Cowboys' second kicking option, but Boyd (140 metres per game) almost doubles his average run metres. Defensively, both are among the league's best positional defenders and bomb defusers, and can more than hold their own one-on-one – as a try-bound James Roberts found out in Round 4.
The history: Played 44; Cowboys 12, Broncos 30, Drawn 2. Befitting such a close matchup, these two sides have split the last six games, with Brisbane claiming the latest edition back in Round 4. The Broncos posted a blowout win in Round 4 last year, but the three games since could not have been any tighter. The Broncos took the qualifying final by just four points, while the last two have gone in to golden point extra time.
What are the odds: Almost 80 per cent of the money is on Brisbane in head-to-head betting. Sportsbet punters think it will be a close game, with the draw the best backed margin, followed by Brisbane at 1-12. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee: Chris Sutton; Touch Judges: Nick Beashel and Michael Wise; Review Officials: Luke Patten and Jared Maxwell.
Televised: Channel 9 – Live coverage from 7:30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7:30pm.
The way we see it: This one is the proverbial coin flip; it's the tightest matchup we have seen in the NRL in many years. Not only are these the most talented teams in the competition, but they are also two of the most consistent. When the big moment comes, Thurston will orchestrate something to get Michael Morgan involved, while the Broncos are just as capable going either left or right. And the forward packs will probably battle out a stalemate. For no other reason than the fact that we landed on 'tails', we'll go with the Broncos by a field goal in golden point. Why not?