Schick Hydro Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v Newcastle Knights
Newcastle's youth policy has been a contentious one due to the lack of success this year, but they have momentarily muted critics by working their tails off for the full 80 minutes last round; it's a non-negotiable that the young Knights have seemingly now grasped. They possess solid strike on the edges in the form of Sione Mata'utia and two of the competition's fastest in Nathan Ross and Jake Mamo, but have struggled to access it since five-eighth Jarrod Mullen went down in Round 8.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys simply hope to get all six Origin men come back unscathed from Wednesday night's series opener. Coach Paul Green has named a full-strength line-up, with an extended bench featuring Rory Kostjasyn, Scott Bolton, Ben Hannant, Patrick Kaufusi and John Asiata.
Knights coach Nathan Brown has made a few changes since last week's loss to Parramatta, bringing back Dane Gagai (Origin), David Bhana, Jeremy Smith and Pat Mata'utia; while Akuila Uate and Korbin Sims (suspension) drop out. Brown has named a six-man bench.
Watch out Cowboys: The Knights have taken massive steps in the last two weeks, with all-out energy covering some of their talent deficiencies. One of their best in the effort categories is late bloomer Nathan Ross. The 27-year-old is like a reincarnation of former Knights centre Adam MacDougall in the ruthless and tireless way he goes about his work. With a 19-man side, Brown's line-up is provisional at this point but if Ross were to team up with Mamo on the left side, they will probably become the league's fastest edge combo.
Watch out Knights: The engine room is where the Knights have been found wanting, and it is North Queensland's bread and butter. Knights hardman Jeremy Smith comes back into the side, but Cowboys Matt Scott, James Tamou and Jason Taumalolo will probably devour his pack. The Knights have not kept a team scoreless in the first 20 minutes of games all season, so expect a Cowboys onslaught from early on. Either winger is a great chance to bag a brace.
Key match-up: Johnathan Thurston v Trent Hodkinson. This one is more about Hodkinson than Thurston. If the Knights have any shot at avoiding the wooden spoon, it has to be by the hand of their halfback. Mullen's long-term injury threw their combinations into disarray and it is solely up to last year's NSW No.7 steer the side around. The Knights have inexperienced playmaker Jaelen Feeney next to Hodkinson, so a smart move would be for both halves to link up often for improved attacking structure. Thurston will likely rack up the try assists in this one, with the Knights' edges statistically the worst in the competition defensively.
The history: Played 34; Cowboys 15, Knights 19. If the Knights want to draw on history, they will see that their trip to Townsville last year actually produced an unexpected two competition points; however it was in Round 2 during the Cowboys' losing start to the season. The Cowboys are 3-2 over the past five matches.
What are the odds: Sportsbet customers love value and there have been plenty of punters keen on a little nibble on Newcastle's outrageous $9.30 opening price. That said, the Cowboys are an attractive proposition for those who want to throw them into their multis to win by 13+. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Gavin Badger; Assistant Referee: Chris Sutton; Touch Judges: Michael Wise and Clayton Sharpe; Senior Review Official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 5:30pm.
The way we see it: Newcastle have been spirited these past two weeks, but they will be doing well to score even two tries. The Cowboys at home are just a different beast, and their monster pack will floor the Knights. Cowboys by 30.