Injury-hit Cowboys hungry for more
They are missing two of their grand final heroes but Cowboys coach Paul Green insists he can still see the hunger in the eyes of his players to defy history and defend their Telstra Premiership title.
Green on Thursday confirmed that both Ethan Lowe (neck) and Kane Linnett (calf) would miss the first semi-final against Brisbane at 1300SMILES Stadium on Friday night with Antonio Winterstein also in doubt with a rib cartilage injury.
The team's equal leading try-scorer, Winterstein has missed just one game all season and will be given until the last possible moment to prove his fitness, with Green to decide between Tautau Moga or teen sensation Kalyn Ponga if necessary.
After starting the season with the same 17 that defeated the Broncos in last year's grand final the Cowboys have used just 25 players during 2016, one less than the Broncos and one more than the Sharks.
Javid Bowen will start in place of Linnett in the centres and Coen Hess moves from the bench to the starting team for Lowe with Green confident their experience during the season will hold them in good stead on such a big occasion.
Hess has played the past four games for the Cowboys and six all told this year while Bowen has scored four tries in eight NRL games, both proving themselves to be up to the standard needed in the NRL.
"We're in a comfortable position in that we've got a couple of injuries but we've been able to bring in guys that have had plenty of NRL experience," Green said.
"That's good for us, it will bring a level of comfort. I've got confidence in the playing group, they've got confidence in each other and I've got confidence in the guys we're bringing in to do the job and that's the most important thing.
"I don't expect them to do anything different for us on Friday night. The fact that it is a big occasion, a big game, a big crowd I'd like to think that they will enjoy the challenge and step up to the mark.
"[Hess's] development pathway has been really good. It's where we wanted him to go and he's handled every step up so far.
"Every challenge he's been given he's handled so having that experience in the back-end of the year is going to hold him in good stead.
"He's excited about his opportunity and it's a great opportunity for him in front of a home crowd, potentially a sell-out, it should be a big occasion for him.
"[Javid] plays down 'Johno' (Johnathan Thurston) and Coops's (Gavin Cooper) edge so those guys have been talking to him as they do with all of the younger guys but Javid has done the job for us so far this year.
"He's developed nicely into a first-grader also so I expect him to enjoy that contest and enjoy the challenge and enjoy the game."
In the past 12 months the Cowboys and Broncos have played in four epic encounters, starting with last year's qualifying final that went down to the final play and three subsequent games that were all decided by a single point.
The Broncos, the last team to win back-to-back premierships, are the ones that could bring North Queensland's defence to a premature end but Green believes that his side has the hunger needed to progress further.
"They're definitely motivated," said Green. "What we went through last year has given them a bit of a taste and I can sense that they want more.
"But talking about it and saying you want to go through it again is one thing but putting yourself through what you have to to get the result that you need in these big games, that's another thing.
"I can sense the motivation there but we won't truly know until we get into the tough stuff on Friday night."
Whether it's the sniff of another premiership or simply another match-up against the Broncos, Green said there was a definite sense of something special as the hours count down until kick-off in front of what is expected to be a full house.
"It's hard to compare. That was so long ago and a season's a long time," Green said of the feeling from last year to now.
"We have got that experience to draw on, hopefully that will benefit us as far as we go in the competition but there's certainly been a spring in the boys' step this week.
"The Broncs have had some pretty epic games recently with not a lot between the two teams so I expect Friday night to be no different.
"I think the boys sense the occasion and there's a little bit of excitement in the way they've been training.
"We're proud of our record [at home] but it's just about winning one game at this point of the season."
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