Schick Hydro Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v Brisbane Broncos
It's on again.
Perhaps the greatest rivalry in modern rugby league will again take place on Friday night as the North Queensland Cowboys host the Brisbane Broncos at 1300SMILES Stadium.
The semi-final between last year's grand finalists is set to bring out the best in both sides as they battle for a preliminary final berth against the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks.
The last three meetings between these two teams have each been decided by a single point, with the Cowboys winning last year's premiership decider in an exhilarating golden point battle that was widely described as the greatest grand final of all time.
Brisbane hit back with an Anthony Milford field goal in extra-time in Round 4 this year but just two months later in Round 11 Johnathan Thurston again won it for his side with a field goal five minutes from full-time.
The only other meeting between these sides within the last 12 months came in last year's qualifying final, with the Broncos prevailing 16-12 in front of a huge Suncorp Stadium crowd.
If Brisbane were to win on Friday night it would be the ultimate grand final revenge for last year's heartbreaking defeat, but it's set to be their most difficult assignment of the season as they visit a North Queensland side that has only lost one game at home all year.
For the Cowboys, centre Kane Linnett is out with a hamstring injury. The inexperienced Javid Bowen will replace him in the only change for North Queensland.
Brisbane will welcome back Tom Opacic from a shoulder injury and Jonus Pearson will shift back to 18th man. There is a chance Pearson may play as centre James Roberts heads to the judiciary to fight his contrary conduct charge on Wednesday night.
Watch out Cowboys: The last three meetings between these two sides may have been decided by one point but if you delve deeper into the statistics there is a worrying trend developing for North Queensland. In the 10-minute period before half-time the Cowboys have been outscored by a combined 14-2 scoreline, and in the 10 minutes after half-time they've been outscored 10-0. It means the Cowboys have been outscored 24-2 between the 30th and 50th minute in these past three clashes. To add to this, North Queensland's left-edge defence has been suspect in each of these recent meetings, with the Broncos' right-side attack capitalising with six tries and eight line breaks in the past 240 minutes of football between the two sides. There is no doubt Brisbane will look to continue with these trends come Friday night.
Watch out Broncos: While Brisbane have dominated the middle part of recent games against the Cowboys, they haven't fared as well late in the contest. They have been outscored in the second half in each of their last six clashes with a Cowboys side that only seems to get stronger as the game gets longer, thanks to huge second stints from their 'big three' of Matt Scott, James Tamou and Jason Taumalolo. The premiers have outscored Brisbane 75-45 over those six second halves, and logic says it has a lot to do with possession rates. In the last three meetings the Cowboys have averaged 52.14 per cent of possession compared with Brisbane's 47.86 per cent, and that difference represents a gulf in such tight games. The Cowboys are a patient team in attack, whereas Brisbane are patient in defence – giving away goal-line penalties and backing their defence to get them out of sticky situations. However, the Cowboys' lighter defensive load probably shows in the end.
Key match-up: Johnathan Thurston v Ben Hunt. Friday night brings another meeting between two of Queensland's best halfbacks, but to put it simply, Hunt must lift to Thurston's level if the Broncos are to leave North Queensland with a win. The 26-year-old Bronco needs to up his involvement in Brisbane's play, with Hunt having only 101 touches in the past three games between these sides compared to Thurston's 208. But not only must Hunt up his involvement, he must also use the ball wisely. North Queensland have forced eight drop-outs in their past three meetings with Wayne Bennett's men – Brisbane have forced zero. That is perhaps the most damning statistic, and if Hunt fails to build pressure on Friday night then Brisbane will have next to no chance of claiming victory.
History: Played 45; Cowboys 13, Broncos 30, Drawn 2. It took 17 games stretching the course of a decade for North Queensland to finally register a win over 'big brother', but just like any little bro, they've come of age to give as good as they get. The Cowboys hold a sparkling 4-1 record over Brisbane in finals matches, but if you're one for patterns then the Broncos are looking good considering no side has strung consecutive wins together in the last seven meetings – and it's the visitors' turn to win here.
What are the odds: Cowboys $1.47, Broncos $2.75. The money is split almost exactly 50/50 in Sportsbet's head-to-head market and the Broncos are firming by the day as a result. Given the history between these two sides, it's no surprise to see the draw is the second-most popular winning margin behind North Queensland 1-12. Kyle Feldt, Jordan Kahu and Corey Oates are the popular picks for first try-scorer. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Matt Cecchin; Assist Referee: Alan Shortall; Touch Judges: Michael Wise and Jeff Younis; Review Officials: Luke Patten and Ashley Klein; Senior RO: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live from 7.30pm; Fox Sports – Live from 7pm.
How we see it: While the Cowboys always bring out the best in their long-time rivals, it's hard not to go past this fast: the only game they have lost at home this season – and in 13 months for that matter – was when Thurston sat out against the Melbourne Storm with a hamstring injury in Round 21. They match up better with Brisbane, who you feel still has another gear to hit. If this game were at Suncorp Stadium we would pretty much flip a coin, but 1300SMILES Stadium is a fortress and in 25,000 unbridled fans they will have enough protection to keep it standing. Cowboys by 7.
Game on. Data off.
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