North Queensland coach Paul Green has omitted teen sensation Kalyn Ponga from the Cowboys team to face Wests Tigers at Campbelltown Stadium on Friday night in what will be their final trial match before the Telstra Premiership kicks off on March 2.
Green named an 18-man squad to travel to Sydney with the same backline that was present for most of 2016, including Kyle Feldt, Antonio Winterstein, Justin O'Neill and Kane Linnett to go with incumbent halves Michael Morgan and Johnathan Thurston.
Handed his NRL debut in the pressure-cooker of an elimination final against the Brisbane Broncos in front of a sold-out home crowd last September, Ponga delivered an electrifying performance that gave Newcastle the confidence to sign him to a multi-million dollar deal starting in 2018.
The 18-year-old further emphasised his immense talent with a sparkling debut at the Downer NRL Auckland Nines a fortnight ago but it appears as though Green is unwilling to squeeze him into the 17 for the season opener against the Raiders.
Green knows Friday's trial will be the last opportunity for the Cowboys to work on fine-tuning their attack after a low-scoring game against the Roosters in Mackay last Saturday.
"What I'm most looking forward to out of this trial is probably just a few combinations, just getting those a little bit sharper, especially with the new guys coming into the team," Green said.
New recruit Ben Hampton will fill the utility role and Green wants the former Storm player ready to go.
"Ben Hampton in that utility role… we want him to feel comfortable in the team," Green said.
The match will also be the last chance for forwards Sam Hoare, Patrick Kaufusi and Coen Hess to prove they are ready to go in Round 1. Asiata seems likely to retain his bench position from 2016, with Scott Bolton moving into a starting spot alongside co-captain Matt Scott in the front row.
That leaves three players fighting it out for only two positions on the bench in Round 1.
Hess played eight NRL games in 2016 and Kaufusi 12 whilst Hoare missed all of last season with a knee injury after playing 14 games across the previous two seasons.
Friday night's hit-out may go some way to solving Green's headache but the decision is far from final.
"Out of the young guys I think they all actually stood up. Everyone played well, the areas that I wanted to see those guys be good in they were," he said of their performances against the Roosters.
The trial match against the Tigers kicks off at 7pm AEDT and is the last for the Cowboys before they open their campaign against the Raiders at 1300SMILES Stadium on Saturday, March 4.