Schick Hydro Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v Melbourne Storm
Playing without Johnathan Thurston is less of a problem than it ever has been for North Queensland, but here's the thing… they are facing the Melbourne Storm.
While Thurston is almost certain to miss out, Melbourne's two sharpest minds – some of the sharpest in rugby league history – will attempt to derail the Cowboys' longest ever home winning streak of 11 games in the second-biggest fixture remaining in the regular season.
Despite the likely absence of our sport's biggest drawcard, this is officially a measuring-stick game for two clubs who are at the very top of premiership favouritism.
The Storm escaped from the almost two-month-long Origin period with just one loss, while the third-placed Cowboys have lost touch with the top two after falling three times in that span. Both sides rounded the regular season's final bend with dominant last-start home wins, but Saturday night signals North Queensland's last shot at the prospect of a top-two finish.
The home side goes in having named just one change – Ray Thompson in for Thurston – as Craig Bellamy's men run 1-17 from last week.
Watch out Cowboys: Melbourne are one of only two teams this season to drastically shut down the competition's most lethal attack, with a stifling 15-14 'home' win over the Cowboys at Suncorp Stadium in Round 10 possibly their best performance all year. The Cowboys are the NRL's leading movers of the ball, but the Storm stifled that back in May on a track typically conducive to high-scoring, expansive football. With Melbourne's strong line speed that didn't give an inch, not even Thurston himself could find a weak point – which casts strong doubt over a Michael Morgan-Ray Thompson halves pairing this week. We will likely see a stronger showing from the home side's forward pack this time, but without 'JT', scoring more than 14 points is no guarantee.
Watch out Storm: Get ready for some heavy contact. What the Cowboys will lack in creativity they will try to compensate for in power attack, and the middle three of Jesse Bromwich, Felise Kaufusi and Dale Finucane must to be ready. Round 10 saw way too many Cowboys errors in yardage sets; Gavin Cooper had three on the game and every back except for Kyle Feldt and Michael Morgan registered an error. The Cowboys will back their brawn but may be a bit more frugal with the pill than usual considering both the opposition and absence of Thurston. Matt Scott (39 minutes) and James Tamou (30) had easy games last week against the Dogs, which could play in their favour on Saturday.
Key match-up: Matt Scott v Jesse Bromwich. Simply put, these are two of the NRL's blue-chip big men. Bromwich has probably taken the reins as world's best bookend, but we think Scott will have something to say on that front. If the Cowboys are to win, the pack will be where it's done, but if the visitors can match motors then they should have the polish to go on and win the game.
The history: Played 31; Cowboys 10, Storm 21. Both teams have split the last four outings, and while the Storm claimed the latest, North Queensland got the win in the biggest ever matchup between these two: last year's preliminary final. They are typically low-scoring affairs, with a combined total of 40 points scored just once in the previous five games.
What are the odds: Melbourne have gone from $2.40 outsiders to favourites since Johnathan Thurston's injury and according to Sportsbet, 90 per cent of the money is with the visitors. Melbourne 1-12 is more popular with punters than 13+. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Ben Cummins; Assistant Referee: Dave Munro; Touch Judges: Brett Suttor and Michael Wise; Senior Review Official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7:30pm.
The way we see it: This one could come down to simple goal kicking. On top of Thurston's prodigious playmaking talent, the Cowboys will also lose an 86 per conversion rate – the best among full-time kickers. Cameron Smith finds himself in the bottom four converters league-wide, but is still much better with the boot than Ethan Lowe who should take the Cowboys' duties. With little separating the sides, we can't go past Melbourne's class in the spine. Storm by four.