Schick Hydro Preview: South Sydney Rabbitohs v North Queensland Cowboys
The Telstra Premiership heads to the far north for the fourth year in a row when two of the league's big names go toe-to-toe.
South Sydney has fallen in love with the place, and it's not hard to see why. Cairns is a picturesque regional city located between the Coral Sea and lush, green mountain ranges tracing as far as the eye can see. There are few more aesthetic sights in rugby league than the setting sun casting long shadows over the lightning-fast Barlow Park deck – one that the Bunnies have had no problems scoring on in their three visits so far.
Manicured like a golf course, the track has been friendly to Souths who have averaged 34 points per game there, with last year's shock Raiders comeback the only blemish.
The Cowboys will themselves relish the familiar feel, with 1300SMILES Stadium also one of the more pristine patches around the league.
After such a promising first two rounds the Rabbitohs now find themselves sitting 13th on the ladder with the warning beacons flashing, six competition points behind the top eight. Meanwhile the Cowboys will themselves want to keep the wins coming to further entrench themselves in the top four, vying for a top-two spot come Round 26.
Adam Reynolds (shoulder) has been cleared of serious injury and lines up at halfback for Souths while Jack Gosiewski returns for his third top-grade game of the year, with Ed Murphy and Patrice Siolo dropping out of the side. The Cowboys are making one change, with Ray Thompson coming into five-eighth and Patrick Kaufusi dropping out.
Watch out Rabbitohs: A lack of continuity in the line-up can count for a lot, but Souths need to start turning up defensively. Since the Cowboys trounced them 44-18 in Round 7, the Bunnies have only twice kept their opposition under 28 points. When low-scoring teams like the Panthers, Eels and Tigers (twice) put up such big numbers, there are clearly issues. The once-feared Souths pack, to a man, needs to be more aggressive with 'effort-on-effort' plays that the great teams make without fail.
Watch out Cowboys: They struggled against Manly's offloads last week, and the Cowboys face a more prolific proponent of second-phase play on Sunday. The Bunnies average 12 offloads per game – tied for the third-highest in the competition – with multiple threats including Sam Burgess, Nathan Brown, Kyle Turner and Paul Carter. In order for offloads to be effective, teams need to be going forward, and inspirational leader Burgess looks to have finally found a teammate to match his aggression. Nathan Brown has shot up the ranks in Souths' forward pack, averaging 139 metres over his past four games.
Key match-up: Sam Burgess v Jason Taumalolo. In the not-so-distant past, this match-up would have been the talk of the league. Such was his aura, Burgess would elicit fear in the most hardened forward. Players almost dare not whisper his name during the 2014 premiership run, but that certain 'X-factor' has lacked since his return this year. Averaging 191 run metres and 41 tackles per game over the past five games (excluding an injury-affected Round 14), Burgess is doing his best to drag his side back into form. While Burgess's efforts are going unrewarded, the reigning Dally M Lock of the Year Jason Taumalolo is carrying the load and keeping the Cowboys going through this Origin period. An affable and laid-back personality, Taumalolo is revered in a different way to Burgess but has been more effective in 2016.
The history: Played 29; Rabbitohs 14, Cowboys 14, Drawn 1. The Cowboys have owned this match-up in recent years despite South Sydney's high standing in the competition. While the Bunnies won the 2014 Telstra Premiership North Queensland actually won both encounters that year and generally seem to enjoy the match-up, winning five of the past six games.
What are the odds: Around 80 per cent of the money wagered on this game has gone on the Cowboys in Sportsbet's head-to-head market, and they've been well backed to win by 13+ and cover the line. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee: Peter Gough; Touch Judges: Tim Roby and Dave Ryan; Review Officials: Ben Galea; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 3:30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7pm.
The way we see it: It is winter, but apparently Far North Queensland didn't get the message. Forecasts have temperatures at 24 degrees for kick-off time, so conditions will probably favour North Queensland despite this being the fourth consecutive year Souths visit Barlow Park. The Cowboys even had the wood on Souths when they were a fellow premiership threat, so this should be a Sunday stroll. Cowboys by 20 in a high-scoring contest.