The first game in the second week of the NRL finals series is a 2015 Grand Final rematch, which will be played in Townsville. Will the Cowboys deliver more heartbreak to the Broncos or will Brisbane avenge last year’s defeat in the decider, to face Cronulla for a place in the 2016 Grand Final. Which team will stay alive? Rugby league writer Daniel Boss provides his thoughts and a prediction for this game.
Week 1 Finals Review
In the opening game of the 2016 NRL finals series, the Broncos overcame a spirited Gold Coast side to advance to the second week. This was certainly wasn’t without controversy, as the Broncos were the beneficiaries of a number of refereeing decisions. Gold Coast coach Neil Henry was spot on in questioning how the referees missed the kick from James Roberts while in the process of playing the ball and the decision to give a penalty for contact on Corey Oates, even though the Titans attacking players were contesting for possession. Brisbane did score over 40 points in a finals game, which means that they did play well. Whether or not they are travelling well enough to progress further in the finals series remains to be seen.
The Cowboys came up short against a highly clinical Melbourne outfit. They paid for costly mistakes, none more so than the failure to get a kick away on the last tackle late in the first half, which led to Vunivalu’s opening try. Melbourne are almost impossible to beat when they get a lead and while the Cowboys threw quite a lot of attack at the Storm, it wasn’t enough. It has been mentioned that the 2016 Cowboys are better than the 2015 Cowboys. I don’t see it at the moment. Sure, this year’s side has been better for the entire season, while last year’s side struggled in the opening rounds. However, this year’s side is not playing as well at the important part of the season as last year’s team was. If there was a tonic to improve their form, it is a finals game at home.
North Queensland Cowboys vs Brisbane Broncos Preview
- Round 4 – Brisbane Broncos defeated North Queensland Cowboys 21-20, Suncorp Stadium
- Round 11 – North Queensland Cowboys defeated Brisbane Broncos 19-18, 1300 Smiles Stadium
Previous Finals Match
- Grand Final 2015 – North Queensland Cowboys defeated Brisbane Broncos 17-16, ANZ Stadium
North Queensland Cowboys
- In: Javid Bowen (centres)
- Out: Kane Linnett
- In: Tom Opacic (centres)
- Out: nil (pending James Roberts judiciary outcome)
Both sides will have changes to their outside backs for this game, regardless of the judiciary result on Wednesday night. The Cowboys have lost Kane Linnett to injury, but have a capable replacement in Javid Bowen. Brisbane welcome back Tom Opacic to the centres, but it remains to be seen whether Roberts or Jordan Kahu will join Opacic in the centres. Even with these changes, both teams possess quality players in the backline. In particular, the match-up of the respective halves combinations; Morgan and Thurston for the Cowboys and Milford and Hunt for the Broncos, will certainly be one to watch. Both Thurston and Milford are crucial to their sides’ chances and whoever plays better on Friday night could well decide the outcome of this game.
All twelve players in the starting forward packs played a part in last year’s decider, which means that there is very little that is unknown. The Broncos will look to utilise their mobility and speed, while the Cowboys will aim to obtain dominance in the middle through their bigger pack. After a controversial week, Jason Taumalolo will look to have a greater impact in this game than he did last week, while Matt Scott will be better after returning from a back injury last week. The Broncos have Sam Thaiday and Matt Gillett starting in the second row, with both players currently in very good form, especially Thaiday, who looks to have found some mobility that was lacking in the past couple of years. At hooker, there is another contrasting contest, with the steady, defensive worse McCullough up against the creative, attacking hooker in Granville. The Cowboys do like to use two hookers and may start with Kostjasyn, but Granville is the best hooker in the Cowboys side and will have the greater impact on this game.
Both teams have four forwards on the bench, which they are able to have, given the versatility of some of the players in either side. Last week, the Broncos bench swung the momentum of the game, with Jarrod Wallace and Alex Glenn providing much needed energy. Wallace was rewarded with a try, which was a crucial one. The Broncos do have the edge on the bench, as the Cowboys haven’t received as much impact off the bench in comparison. Scott Bolton and Ben Hannant have important roles in this game and may be needed to assert or reassert dominance in the middle of the field, depending on how the game is going.
The main theme coming out of the first week of the finals is that the likely Grand Final will be a rematch of the Storm-Cowboys game. While that would not be a surprise, it overstates the current form of the Cowboys. At their best, they are unquestionably a premiership threat, but they haven’t been at their best for the majority of the latter part of this season. Part of it is the injuries to key players and another part seems to be the challenge of defending a premiership. As for Brisbane, they seem to be timing their run almost perfectly. Sure, they got a bit of help from refereeing decisions last week but they were still too good for the Titans. They also rise for games played against the arch-rival Cowboys.
The venue of this game is important, as the Cowboys have never lost of finals game played in Townsville, including three wins over Brisbane in 2004, 2012 and 2014. It will also likely be quite warm in Townsville. Much warmer than Melbourne, which will suit the Cowboys a lot more. However, this game should go right down to the wire, much like their previous three games that were all determined by one point. The Cowboys should get up in this game and the prediction is for them to win, but it won’t be easy. It’s just impossible to bet against Johnathan Thurston in Townsville, in a somewhat low scoring game.