Schick Hydro Preview: Sydney Roosters v North Queensland Cowboys
The pressure stakes could not be more different coming into Sunday afternoon's showdown between a Roosters side aiming for a couple of momentum-building wins to end the season and a Cowboys side that is now in a dogfight for a top-four finish.
North Queensland have been in cruise control all season, but this past month has been their worst since March of last year.
After winning three minor premierships on succession the Roosters have now endured six horrible months in a row, and while they are being credited as a better team than their 15th position suggests they have still lost seven of their past eight games.
Expect the Roosters to let it all hang out in one of their last chances to claim a big scalp before season's end, while the Cowboys need to do the same despite the pressure they find themselves under.
Two big Roosters names return this week in Mitchell Pearce, who missed last week's Monday night drubbing at Penrith with a calf injury, and Jared Waerea-Hargreaves, who has not played since Round 20 due to a knee injury. Isaac Liu and Ryan Matterson drop back to a five-man bench, while last-start debutant Grant Garvey misses out.
The Cowboys have Ray Thompson replacing Jake Granville at hooker, while forwards Patrick Kaufusi and Coen Hess join a six-man bench after bench prop Ben Hannant (knee injury) will likely be out for a month. Winger Kyle Feldt also returns from a three-week suspension.
Watch out Roosters: Rarely does Johnathan Thurston have two bad games in a row. There is no more competitive player in the NRL and he will be hell-bent on resurrecting his side's floundering late-season form. The Cowboys have lost three of their past four games but typically finish the regular season strongly, so expect a bounce-back game full of desperation for a side that also needs an away win before pressure is also heaped on them from that angle. With Jake Granville out of the side, expect even more touches for Thurston.
Watch out Cowboys: With a hungry Roosters pack eager to win the yardage battle, the Cowboys' fifth-tackle options will be paramount on Sunday. North Queensland have been alarmingly subpar with the boot in the two weeks since Thurston put on the best kicking display of the season in the first half of their home win over the Dogs, and they will need to improve their kicking and attacking set plays to have any chance of winning back-to-back premierships. With the cool head of Pearce returning, the typically fast-starting Roosters could jump North Queensland who have themselves been slow out of the blocks recently. Blake Ferguson's impact was limited without his halfback last week, but there is no doubting fullback is where he can put all his skills on display. The Cowboys' second-row/halves combinations need to be talking defensively with Ferguson on the prowl.
Key match-up: Johnathan Thurston v Mitchell Pearce. The fact that the Cowboys have not had their entire team together on the training paddock since before State of Origin Game I showed against the hungry Tigers. The premiers looked like an entirely different team last week not just in red zone attack, but also in the middle. The Telstra Premiership's most destructive forward Jason Taumalolo was a non-factor and their shape was all at sea, so it's Thurston's job to fix it. When the Cowboys are rolling, edge forwards Gavin Cooper and Ethan Lowe are running countless decoys and their link passing through the middle is crisp. Meanwhile, we all saw how the Roosters crumbled without their chief playmaker last week, with Pearce arguably as important to his own side as Thurston is to North Queensland.
The history: Played 33; Roosters 23, Cowboys 10. These sides have split their previous six games dating back to 2012, with four of those games decided by 24 points or more.
What are the odds: There have been eight times as many individual bets on the Cowboys compared to the Roosters. Sportsbet reports more money on North Queensland to win 13+ than on every other winning margin option combined. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Gerard Maxwell; Assistant Referee: Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges: Rohan Best and Belinda Sleeman; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 3:30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 4pm.
The way we see it: We are tipping the Roosters to get an early jump here, which may rattle the visitors. The Cowboys boast the calming presences of Thurston, Matt Scott and Gavin Cooper, but last week the Tigers proved that they can be made to feel uncomfortable with kamikaze line speed. Will the Roosters go that extra mile or hang back and provide the likes of Thurston time and space? Either way we think there is too much on the line for North Queensland to lose here. Cowboys by 8.