Round 15: Cowboys v Warriors preview
Warriors look to break horror Townville run by ending the Cowboys' season
When the phrase ‘mathematical finals chance' begins to be uttered in rugby league circles, the likelihood of a team featuring beyond the home-and-away season is all but finished. In the case of the North Queensland Cowboys the need to win all their remaining matches is a task they have a potential chance of achieving, but based off of a lousy season to date, there appears to be little hope of their ambitions coming to fruition. Enduring a humiliating loss to the last-placed Eels in Darwin last Saturday, coach Paul Green has responded by altering his line up slightly. Dropping underperforming duo Justin O'Neill and Antonio Winterstein, the elevation of premiership winner Kane Linnett into the backline for the first time this season alongside returning speedster Javid Bowen should provide the Cowboys with greater potency in attack if Green's changes play out as desired. Holding a relatively strong record against the Warriors in recent seasons with four wins from the past five clashes, a focus on mastering the fundamentals of play - ball control, completing sets, minimal errors - will be pivotal to the side's chances of coming away with two points.
After starting the year with five straight wins, the only consistency to be found in the New Zealand Warriors has been their inconsistency. Unable to string together consecutive results since ironically the last time the Auckland outfit downed the Cowboys in Round 5, coach Stephen Kearney will have his sights set on a strong performance on Friday night before next week's representative bye makes a big impact on Warriors' roster. With as many as 20 players eligible for selection in the New Zealand, Tongan and Samoan squads, the potential fallout for the Warriors could be dire as they look to secure a return to the finals for the first time since 2011. Maintaining the same side that disposed of the Sea Eagles in Christchurch, captain Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has been named to return at fullback, however should the 25-year-old fail to make it onto the field, experienced outside back Gerard Beale will come into the side as he has done over the past three weeks. With their historical record against North Queensland tied at 19 wins apiece, the Warriors will be out to overcome a horrific form line against the Cowboys in Townsville having managed a single win from their past 12 visits to 1300SMILES Stadium.
Who to watch: It is becoming increasingly inevitable that the career of Johnathan Thurston is going to end in a manner unbefitting of the individual and team successes experienced over past 16 years. For as influential as the former Canterbury back-up playmaker has been in the seasons following his arrival on the rugby league scene, the effects of playing on following serious injury and a lifetime of collisions brought on by his willingness to challenge opposition defences has irrevocably impacted his body. With Friday night serving as the first of ten do-or-die matches remaining before the conclusion of the regular season, the 35-year-old halfback has proven his class time and again at club, state and international levels, but if his final season is to amount to more than the highly admirable feat of returning from injury, the Cowboys captain will need to stand up and deliver.
Making his NRL debut in the opening round of last season, 19-year-old second rower Isaiah Papali'i has been one of success stories of the Warriors newfound form in 2018. Defying his youthful inexperience to relegate former captain Simon Mannering to the bench, the long haired Auckland native has already crossed for three tries in eight appearance this season to evoke memories of former Penrith ‘Hair Bears' Tony Puletua and Joe Galuvao at their career heights 15 years ago. With the New Zealand team for the mid-season test against England named at the conclusion of the round, Papali'i could emerge as a bolter for Michael Maguire's maiden venture as Kiwi's coach, with his youthful exuberance and eagerness to improve embodying the attitude the Kiwi's need to establish following a disastrous World Cup campaign last year.
The favourite: While the New Zealander's are due for a loss on the basis of their inconsistent form over the past two months, the underwhelming performances produced by North Queensland so far this season has the Warriors heavily backed to come away with two points.
My tip: In the time that Johnathan Thurston and Simon Mannering have been at their respective clubs, the team that has trailed at halftime in the 21 Cowboys v Warriors matches contested since 2005 have managed to come from behind on just three occasions. With that statistic in mind, look for an early Warriors attacking onslaught to consign North Queensland to play out the remainder of 2018 with no hope of playing finals football. Warriors by 20.