Schick Hydro Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v New Zealand Warriors
Which Cowboys side will show up this week? And for that matter, which Warriors team will we see?
Both teams were embarrassed last week in defeats to the Roosters and Rabbitohs respectively, and it is desperation stakes for both.
Coach Paul Green and his players are trying to keep a lid on the topic, but the infamous road woes that have plagued North Queensland since entering the competition are officially back, and they pose a massive threat to a side that isn't guaranteed to host even one home final. The Cowboys hold a sparkling 9-1 record at home, while that number is 3-8 away from 1300SMILES Stadium. And one of those three wins was when the Bunnies took a home fixture to Cowboy heartland.
Meanwhile, the Kiwis – masters of turbulent form – have risen to the occasion the last two times they have played in Townsville and don't hold as poor an away record as some may imagine. Make no mistake, Saturday night could be anything.
The home side have named a couple of changes, with Antonio Winterstein returning for Javid Bowen and Coen Hess in for John Asiata who will play Intrust Super Cup for the sake of match fitness.
New Zealand will bring in Bunty Afoa and James Gavet, while Tui Lolohea drops back to the Intrust Super Premiership.
Watch out Cowboys: The most certain thing about this game is how the Warriors will approach their defence. The blueprint has been handed to them on a silver platter thanks to the Tigers and Roosters, with Thurston looking as uncomfortable these past two weeks as we have seen him in recent memory. Cowboys fans are praying they have figured out how to combat inversed defensive lines that have troubled them recently, but the indication was actually there early in the season when Parramatta scored two length-of-the-field tries off jamming defence which cramped both Cowboys halves – forcing Thurston to throw an intercept and Morgan to knock on in the face of a rushing Michael Jennings.
Watch out Warriors: We asked Green earlier in the week whether there have been any signs of form and confidence returning, but the Cowboys mentor gave us nothing. While they are calm on the exterior, you get the sense North Queensland – fanbase included – is tense and desperately seeking a result. They have not explicitly said it but when Green mentions 'being prepared to fight to get that form back' and Thurston says the players' processing of information from the coaching staff is the reason for the form slump, logic says that equates to complacency. If the premiers are serious about going back-to-back then their desperation level will be at a season-best level on Saturday. While the Cowboys' structures even in yardage sets are all at sea, desperate play means desperate charges and big defence, so the New Zealand pack needs to be ready.
Key match-up: Johnathan Thurston v Shaun Johnson. This matchup is pretty clear-cut and should decide the winner of the game. Thurston is the Cowboys' chief and is most responsible for his side's change of fortunes, while Johnson's individual magic has set the tone for New Zealand's play style for over half a decade.
Thurston is the on-field coach: he is the leader, the organiser and the team's hardest worker, and we are backing him to be smart enough to have figured out how to exploit rushing defences to some extent come Saturday.
Shaun Johnson is still the sport's most dangerous ball runner whose progression as a playmaker has been impressive since the early rounds. The possibilities are endless on every single touch, and the Cowboys' edges – which are not playing strong defensively – need to be talking this week. Johnson leads the Telstra Premiership in line-break assists with 23 (five ahead of Thurston), while is just two try assists from the league's best (Ben Hunt) and one behind Thurston.
The history: Played 35; Cowboys 17, Warriors 18. Both sides have split the last four meetings, with each team stealing one game on the road. As far as a contest goes, these games are either rocks or diamonds, with margins of 40, 2, 4, 4 and 34 over the past five games.
What are the odds: North Queensland start as odds-on favourite with Sportsbet but slightly more money has come in for the Warriors. The draw is well supported but the Warriors by 13+ is the best backed in margin-betting. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match officials: Referee: Ashley Klein. Assistant Referee: Adam Gee. Touch Judges: Brett Suttor and Nick Morel. Senior Review Official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7:30pm.
The way we see it: Had Paul Green given us some cause for optimism when asked about a potential form turnaround, we would have tipped the home side. However, we don't think it is returning this week. The Warriors have been punching above their weight in recent Townsville games, so we will tip them to win by 7 points.