Schick Hydro Preview: Canberra Raiders v North Queensland Cowboys
This had the makings of being one of the games of the season.
Two high-flying teams with huge forward packs, flashy outside backs and of course the game's premier playmaker doing battle in the nation's capital.
Alas, Johnathan Thurston and four of his fellow Cowboys will be away on Origin duty, thus severely denting their chances of a third straight victory.
Instead, the Cowboys will leave their tropical surroundings for what could be freezing conditions in Canberra to take on a Raiders side still reminiscing about their great escape last weekend.
The Green Machine trailed the Newcastle Knights 22-0 in the shadows of half-time before mounting a stirring comeback to eventually steal it in golden point with a try to Jordan Rapana that had to be seen to be believed.
That could be the get-out-of-jail-free game they needed at this stage of the season, and with a bye to come in Round 19 the Raiders could easily find themselves top-four bound in the coming weeks.
For Canberra, Sia Soliola comes into the back row for the injured Josh Papalii while Clay Priest has been included on the bench following Luke Bateman's suspension.
With Johnathan Thurston, Justin O'Neill, Gavin Cooper, James Tamou and Matt Scott all unavailable due to State of Origin the likes of Rory Kostjasyn, Ben Hannant and Scott Bolton will shift from the bench to start for the Cowboys. Tautau Moga and Coen Hess will also start in the centres and back row respectively, while Ben Spina, Josh Chudleigh (in his NRL debut) and Patrick Kaufusi join the bench.
Watch out Raiders: The Cowboys might be without a fair chunk of their salary cap, but that doesn't mean it's going to be a walk in the park for the Green Machine. The 2015 premiers' attack has been lethal all year, but it's their defence that has largely gone unnoticed. The Cowboys have held three of the past six premiers scoreless this season, and conceded just 14 points without their Origin stars in Round 12. Only the Storm have allowed fewer points in 2015.
Watch out Cowboys: No side exploits a fast play-the-ball better than the Raiders. Whether it's coming out of their end from a kick return or taking advantage of a dominant run by the forwards, Canberra will look to attack from the ruck from anywhere on the field. Players like Joey Leilua, Jordan Rapana and Josh Hodgson love to sniff around a quick play the ball and have carved teams through the middle throughout 2016. Only the Dragons have had more dummy-half runs than the Raiders (245), while the Cowboys rank 15th in 2016 with 110 scoots.
Key match-up: Josh Hodgson v Jake Granville. Two of the best attacking hookers in the NRL will come head-to-head on Monday night in what should be a thrilling contest in the ruck. Hodgson has been one of the form players in the competition and was a runaway leader in Dally M voting not that long ago. With nine try assists and a pair of four-pointers to his name, the Englishman is a threat anywhere close to the line. His counterpart on Monday night has identical stats with two tries and nine assists, and has greatly upped his game-time since returning to the starting side earlier in the year. With no Thurston to control the side, expect Granville to make a statement in the nation's capital.
The history: Played 36; Raiders 20, Cowboys 16. The Raiders might have a superior overall record, but it's been all North Queensland in recent times with the Cowboys winning eight of the past 10 clashes. Last year's match in Canberra will go down as one of the thrillers of 2015 as Johnathan Thurston nailed an 80th-minute field goal to seal a thrilling 21-20 victory.
What are the odds: Sportsbet punters are backing the Cowboys to cause the upset without their Origin stars and their price should firm significantly if the money continues. North Queensland 13+ is the most popular option in the winning margin market while four times as much has gone on the Cowboys head-to-head. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Grant Atkins. Assistant referee: Alan Shortall. Sideline officials: Russell Turner and Chris Butler.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 6:30pm.
The way we see it: In spite of the Origin-driven player drain, the Cowboys have named a very strong starting 13 more than capable of matching it with the Raiders. The biggest challenge will be whether their inexperienced bench can match it while the big guns are off the field. If not, the Raiders should do enough to make it three wins on the trot. Raiders by 8.