Schick Hydro Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v Canterbury Bulldogs
The beginning of the end is here. With State of Origin in the books for another year we move on to the final section of the Telstra Premiership regular season.
The Cowboys are seemingly the footballing equivalent of world famous sprinter Usain Bolt – not always quickest off the blocks but cannot be touched on the run home – while Des Hasler's Dogs always find their best footy when it matters.
The middle portion of the top eight is teetering on a knife's edge with the Sharks and Storm having bolted in a two-way race for the JJ Giltinan Shield, and the seventh and eighth-placed teams (currently the Titans and Warriors) unlikely to make any great inroads before the finals. But the battle is hot for the top four's remaining two places, as just two competition points separate third and sixth.
Boasting two rampaging forward packs that can be the league's best on any given night, the Cowboys and Bulldogs always put on a good show full of fireworks and Thursday will be no different as the Dogs look to inflict North Queensland's first home loss of the year.
As expected, the home side has made wholesale post-Origin changes to field their strongest 17 men, minus Kyle Feldt whose three-game suspension means that Javid Bowen takes his place on the right wing outside Justin O'Neill.
The Dogs, winners of four in a row, get back Blues David Klemmer and Josh Jackson, while Craig Garvey joins a six-man bench, with two to be omitted.
Watch out Cowboys: With offloads, hard charges and solid ball-playing ability, Sam Kasiano is a one-man representation of how to trouble the Cowboys. They are a very structured team that communicates as well as any in the competition, but one of the only ways to break that down is second-phase play. Averaging a league-lowest seven offloads per game, North Queensland are themselves trying to incorporate the offload into their plans with 11 per game in their last three, but the unpredictability that comes with second-phase action appears to be meddling with their structures somewhat.
Watch out Bulldogs: The visitors need to be on it from the get-go. The Bulldogs have let in the first try in the past four games in a row, but cannot afford anything less than 80 minutes of effort if they want to knock off the premiers. While slow starts can be dire for some teams, Townsville seems to be one of those places where anything can happen. More often than not a fast-starting Cowboys will give their opposition a chance to get back into the game, but expect the champs to key in mentally as the season winds into the finals.
Key match-up: Jason Taumalolo v David Klemmer. While these are probably the two-most consistently destructive runners in each pack, this is just a token match-up. It's really about every single man in the middle third going hell-for-leather in a gargantuan struggle for field position. On paper these forwards are just too hard to split: they both have incredible running power and ball-playing finesse, while the Cowboys are themselves starting to join the offload party – a staple of the Dogs' play.
Only 18 run metres per game (in favour of Canterbury) separates these teams, and we're expecting a very even encounter on Thursday.
The history: Played 33; Cowboys 12, Bulldogs 21. Three of the past four games have gone the Cowboys' way, including last year's dramatic 23-16 win in Townsville on the back of Michael Morgan's game-winning try in a period where his star rose considerably.
Match officials: Referee: Jared Maxwell; Assistant Referee: Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges: Ricky MacFarlane and Tim Roby; Senior Review Official: Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live coverage from 7:30pm; Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7:30pm.
The way we see it: What is most certain out of this one is that it will be fun. The middle will be a battle royale, while both sides have strike on the outers. Brett Morris has come back rocking a strike rate of 2.33 tries over his past three games and the Dogs have taken their last four, but we will tip the Cowboys to remain unbeaten at home. Cowboys by eight.