Schick Hydro Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v Gold Coast Titans
The Cowboys have battled manfully despite the defending premiers' curse hanging over their head and will look to sew up a top-four spot for finals on Saturday, while the Titans are in their own epic battle just to qualify for the post-season.
After almost an entirely clean bill of health for the past 18 months, North Queensland have been feeling the pinch over recent weeks, with injury forcing Antonio Winterstein, Matt Scott (twice), Ben Hannant and Jake Granville to sit out games.
If there were any lingering doubts over form, they were crushed last week with an emphatic statement win over the Bulldogs. Away form has been a problem for the Cowboys this year (four wins and eight losses on the road), but just as the rugby league public were ready to again declare 'road woes', they posted their best away win of the year. We get the sense the Cowboys are yet to hit top gear at any point this season and are just waiting for finals to come around before unleashing the beast. Saturday evening may be a sneak peek.
Meanwhile, the Titans – tipped in the pre-season as a wooden spoon contender – have punched above their weight mightily in 2016. You won't find a team that works harder than this group, and the rugby league gods just need to find a way to fit them into the top eight by Sunday night.
They have weapons around the park, chiefly Jarryd Hayne who is quickly finding his best tackle-busting, game-changing form after a two-year absence from the sport. Coach Neil Henry has done a great job in a short space of time, integrating the fresh face with his roster.
The Cowboys have back-up prop Ben Hannant returning this week as Scott is scratched, while Henry has omitted no one but adds David Mead, Lachlan Burr and David Shillington to a seven-man bench.
Watch out Cowboys: In three weeks at five-eighth and a first hit-out at fullback last weekend Hayne has shown that the magic that made him the game's most devastating runner of the football isn't far away. With a limited preparation Hayne ran for 220 metres, made a line break, six tackle busts and was safe under the high ball, bringing the crowd to their feet with one kick return where he evaded three Panthers and another bust into the back-field off a Leivaha Pulu offload. He shared the stage with Johnathan Thurston at the 2014 Dally M Medal Awards but Hayne won't mind taking the lead in enemy territory on Saturday night.
Watch out Titans: The Titans have the propensity to open the floodgates on their left edge, with second-rower Zeb Taia missing the most tackles of any Titans this season (72 or 3.1 per game), and the man on his left shoulder, Josh Hoffman, also missing two per game. Watch for the Cowboys' right-side shifts as they home in on that weaker edge and bring the likes of try-scorers Kyle Feldt and Justin O'Neill into the fray any chance they get. When both Cowboys halves link up it is generally on the right side, with Thurston's creativity giving Morgan space to roam. Morgan makes the right pass/run decision more often than not when he ventures out wide on exploratory runs, but he needs to back himself more often than he is at present.
Key match-up: Jason Taumalolo v Greg Bird. Where Jason Taumalolo is the epitome of the modern 'middle' opposite number Greg Bird is a throwback to the days when lock forwards were a heady mix of skill and toughness. Taumalolo's charges that are next to impossible to stop provide his team's playmakers with time and space but you can bet Bird will be the one off his line and in his face before he gets a head of steam up. As the likes of Suaia Matagi, Leilani Latu and James Fisher-Harris bulldozed their way up-field for the Panthers last week Bird was the one prepared to meet them with an equally ferocious force and has another bruising assignment ahead of him opposite Taumalolo. If he can keep the youngster quiet, the Titans are a much better chance of enjoying ascendancy in the ruck.
The history: Played 16; Cowboys 8, Titans 8. Honours evenly shared over the 16 previous meetings but never have these two teams met so late in the season and with so much at stake. A Titans win would earn their return to finals football and mark the first time all three Queensland teams have finished the regular season inside the top eight. The Titans were victorious in their first two trips to Townsville but have won just one from their past six trips to North Queensland.
What are the odds: For every dollar placed on the Titans, Sportsbet has received four for the Cowboys in the head-to-head market. North Queensland 13-plus is holding more money than all of the other margin options combined. Kyle Feldt is the best backed in the first tryscorer market. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Matt Checcin; Assistant Referee: Dave Munro; Touch Judges: Michael Wise and Rickey MacFarlane; Senior Review Official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 5pm.
The way we see it: The contrast in styles here is noteworthy. Gold Coast play with a discernible lack of structure, while the Cowboys are one of the most structured sides in the competition and have a method for everything. The Titans will likely come out the more physical of the two sides, but we can't see a scenario where they walk away with the two points. Their finals prospects should be out of their hands entering the final day of the regular season. Cowboys by 8.