Schick Hydro Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles
Saturday, 8pm (AEST)
The Cowboys will be under pressure in Round 3 of the 2017 NRL Telstra Premiership, after losing a host of players to injury and suspension in Round 2.
The loss of Matt Scott and Jason Taumalolo up front and Lachlan Coote and Antonio Winterstein in the backs will be felt when they take on a young Manly forward pack led by Nate Myles.
Manly will be desperate for a win to stave off eight losses in a row, which would have them equal the club's record, and the recent criticism of coach Trent Barret will add fuel to that fire.
The Sea Eagles forwards have been dominated in the first two rounds, running for 2279 metres to the Cowboys' 3264. It's an unflattering statistic and one that Manly will be looking to improve in Townsville.
Why Cowboys can win: Despite missing the two biggest engines in their forward pack, the Cowboys still possess a dangerous group of big men, with the likes of Scott Bolton, Patrick Kaufusi, Gavin Cooper, Ethan Lowe and Coen Hess. The Cowboys are confident that their engine room can push them up the field, and so they should be after a win against the Brisbane Broncos in Round 2. If the forwards are successful, the likes of Johnathan Thurston, Michael Morgan, Jake Granville and Kalyn Ponga will be looking to seize any opportunities that come their way. They'll be similarly eager to maintain the excellent winning record that they've developed, having only lost five games at 1300SMILES Stadium in the last two years.
Why Manly can win: Desperation will be a powerful motivator for Manly, and any forward pack that boasts the likes of Myles and Jake Trbojevic is one to watch out for. If they can control the ball above 80 per cent for the first time this year they'll go a long way towards giving Daly Cherry-Evans and Tom Trbojevic the space they need to split the Cowboys through the middle. Fullback Tom has a strong combination with brother Jake, which was a key contributor to his 10 tries and 20 line breaks in 2016.
Key match-up: Kalyn Ponga and Tom Trbojevic. Trbojevic is an up-and-coming fullback who has proved his ability in 2016, while Ponga is tipped as one of the bright stars of the future. The new-comer's defence could be tested on the night if Trbojevic is able to split the Cowboys up the middle, and Cherry-Evans will be looking to pressure him with bombs and grubbers. The same could be said of Trbojevic, except he'll be facing Thurston's almost flawless kicking, and any mistake will likely see Manly punished, as the Broncos were last week. Ponga will also be eager to test his footwork off passes from Thurston and Morgan, and being able to engage anywhere on the field as he sees fit will see him active in the game more than in the finals last year.
The history: Played 27; Cowboys 12; Sea Eagles 15. The Cowboys have dominated this fixture in recent years, winning the last five since Round 26, 2014. Their last meeting came in Townsville in Round 16 last season with the home side prevailing 30-26.
What are the odds: Manly have been the more popular side with Sportsbet punters, but only in the handicap market where they're getting a rather large points start. It's a different story in the head-to-head market, and punters are including the Cowboys in their multis over the weekend. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Henry Perenara, Peter Gough. Sideline Officials: Rohan Best, Phil Henderson. Video Referees: Luke Patten, Jared Maxwell.
Televised: Fox League – Live coverage from 8pm (AEST).
How we see it: Even with a depleted forward pack the Cowboys will still have the discipline, patience and confidence only gained by experience. This is backed up by an 81 per cent average completion rate over two golden point games, compared to the Manly average of 70 per cent. It seems unlikely that Manly will have enough possession to get within striking range often enough to test the North Queensland defence. Cowboys by 10 points.