Schick Hydro Preview: Wests Tigers v North Queensland Cowboys
Fingers crossed for a better one this time.
Cast your minds back to a slippery Saturday night at Campbelltown in Round 11 last year. Both teams struggled mightily for points without their State of Origin stars, as Antonio Winterstein's game-winning try – the only four-pointer of the match – came with just three minutes remaining. Ethan Lowe bookended the night with a 29th-minute penalty goal and the conversion. And that was it.
This Sunday we will have a bulk of the game under natural light, a drier track and plenty of superstars in action, which should equate to points. Jason Taylor's men are finding points easier to come by in the second half of the season, having scored 20 or more in every game since Round 13's 32-18 defeat to the Roosters. However, they will have to manage without halfback Luke Brooks (injured posterior cruciate ligament) who will be out for up to five weeks. Meanwhile, the reigning premiers are quietly doing their thing while travelling better than their 5-5 record over the last 10 games suggests.
Both teams will be desperate for different reasons, as Wests (sitting 10th, 76 for-and-against points behind the eighth-placed Warriors) need to build on their two-game winning streak to qualify for the finals, while North Queensland are staving off threats from Canberra and Canterbury – knowing that a top-four finish is almost imperative in their quest for back-to-back premierships.
Jason Taylor has selected Jack Littlejohn to replace Brooks and added Michael Chee-Kam to an extended bench, while the Cowboys are unchanged.
Watch out Tigers: If the Cowboys were just mixing it with Melbourne and Cronulla at the top of the ladder then there is every chance Johnathan Thurston would miss this one. Instead they are battling for their top-four lives right now with a few interesting opponents ahead in the Roosters (away), Warriors (home) and Bulldogs (away). Throw in a battle against a form Gold Coast side now with Jarryd Hayne in Round 26, and a Cowboys top-four finish is not exactly a formality.
This is close to a must-win game for them, so we think Thurston will lace up despite not being named considering he participated in a training run the day before last week's game. The Cowboys' kicking game will drastically improve with the veteran's likely return. Michael Morgan is starting to overtake Lachlan Coote as second-choice kicker and should also bounce back with a solid game.
Watch out Cowboys: Fullback James Tedesco may be the Tigers' biggest name, but five-eighth Mitchell Moses is the big dog now. He proved that in last week's win, with a controlling hand in a clinical closing out of Parramatta. Just like the entire Tigers team, the 21-year-old is known for his flair and ability to make 'home run' plays happen, but he is beginning to mature into the man who could lead the club for a decade to come. Robbie Farah has again failed to make the 17-man team, so Moses has the keys to part the Cowboys' seas.
Key match-up: James Tedesco v Lachlan Coote. When Tedesco is on song his play matches that of a certain New South Wales fullback who has recently returned to the game. The debate between Tedesco and Hayne around NSW's No. 1 jersey in 2017 will start this week and rage until the next State of Origin series comes around in nine months, so there is no better way to get a leg up than a big performance against the premiers. He won't have it easy however; there is no better player than Thurston at putting fullbacks under pressure with precise kicking and coordination of side-to-side movements. Tedesco will be on his toes throughout this one, while Coote has the potential to trouble the home side with linking runs in red-zone raids. The Tigers are susceptible on either edge and the ever-consistent Coote should make them pay.
The history: Played 31; Wests Tigers 16, Cowboys 15. As expected, North Queensland has won three of the past four matches since 2013, with the latest encounter as dour as they come. Recent games between these two have been either rocks or diamonds from a fan's point of view.
What are the odds: Sportsbet customers turned off the Wests Tigers as soon as the extent of Luke Brooks' injury became apparent and 80 per cent of the money in the head to head market has gone on North Queensland. Cowboys 13+ has been very popular. Latest odds at sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee: Alan Shortall; Touch Judges: Jeff Younis and Ricky MacFarlane; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 3:30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 4pm.
The way we see it: Rarely do we see the Cowboys feature on Sunday afternoons, but it will suit them down to the ground. They are a momentum team who likes to move the ball and play with pace, so it's up to the Tigers to wrestle in the ruck like their lives depend on it. They will be tough in their favourite timeslot at their spiritual home, but the visitors will have too much. Cowboys by 10.