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Well-rested v running on empty in Grand Final qualifier
In the three previous seasons the Roosters qualified for the finals under Trent Robinson, the key stat in determining Premiership success has been a week off in preparation for the Grand Final qualifier. Having achieved the first step in replicating the heroics of 2013, the Roosters should have little trouble accounting for a Cowboys side running on empty, but as they have shown in their past two matches, fumes can be enough to get North Queensland over the line. Getting out of jail with a late win over Brisbane after squandering a solid lead, the Roosters will be hoping previous finals results against their opponents eventuate once more, with the home side coming up with a decisive one-pointer to progress a week further in the two previous September meetings contested between the clubs. In the main change from the side that downed Brisbane 24-22, Zane Tetevano replaces the departing Kane Evans on the bench, while despite speculation surrounding the availability of Luke Keary mounting during the week, expect the former South Sydney premiership winner to take his place alongside Mitchell Pearce in the halves. Additionally, former International winger Daniel Tupou has been named in the starting side after playing just eight minutes against the Broncos a fortnight ago, while the Eastern Suburbs club will be looking to take advantage of a strong record over the visitors which has seen the Roosters win four of the past five clashes, including three consecutive wins at Allianz Stadium.
Defying the expectations of experts and pundits alike, the same Cowboys outfit that required fortuitous results to fall their way in order to qualify for the play-offs sit just 80 minutes away from the unlikeliest of Grand Final appearances. Managing just one win from their final six regular season matches, Paul Green's men were considered meek canon fodder for the likes of Cronulla and Parramatta, yet the depleted North Queensland outfit have displayed a resilience previously considered an impossibility given the long-term absences of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott. In their place, supporting figures in the 2015 triumph have reached a level few though possible, with the likes of John Asiata, Ethan Lowe and Michael Morgan refusing to let naysayers get the better of them by stepping up to fill the void. Winless in their past two finals appearances against the Roosters, the Cowboys will feed off critiques leveled at their chances of standing within grasp of the Provan-Summons trophy, but having stood up over the past fortnight, look for the underdogs to press their claims as the rightful Kings in the North. Keeping the faith with the same squad that downed the Eels 24-16 last Saturday, coach Paul Green will likely used Shaun Fensom in the starting side as he has done with success in recent weeks, however in a shocking inclusion Matt Scott could play his first match since Round 2 after being included on the extended bench.
Last meeting: Round 21 2017 - Roosters 22 Cowboys 16
Last Finals Meeting: First Semi Final, 2014 - Sydney Roosters 31 North Queensland Cowboys 30
Who to watch: Coming off the back of a moment that will be forever ingrained in the minds of supporters for years to come, it seems rather reductive to highlight the importance of Latrell Mitchell to the Roosters chances of qualifying for their first decider since 2013. At just 20 years of age, the Taree native has been a revelation for the Bondi club since debuting in the opening round of last season, with his attributes as a footballer making him more than a star of the future, but in fact the most dangerous attacking threat of any of the four remaining sides. Having resuscitated his season with a starring role against the Eels in Round 10 after spending time with the Wyong Roos as a result of his defensive frailties, Mitchell has cemented his place in the Roosters backline on the back of a series of moments that have drawn comparisons with the modern day greats of rugby league. It may be too much to ask of a player still old enough to play Holden Cup, but if the Roosters are to realise their hopes of featuring in October, Mitchell will need to deliver.
At 25-years-old Cowboys playmaker Michael Morgan sits at a crossroads in his career. Having risen to representative status as an offside to the brilliance of Johnathan Thurston, Morgan has taken it upon himself to ensure the Cowboys remain a competitive force beyond the impending departure of arguably the greatest player of the 21st century. While previous North Queensland outfits have wasted away in the past, with Morgan at the helm the Cowboys have shown that they are capable of going toe-to-toe with any opponent. Stepping up to deliver the knockout blow in the past two finals, Morgan will relish his personal duel opposite Mitchell Pearce in what may prove to be one of the defining underdog stories in rugby league history.
The favourite: Well-rested after a week off, the Roosters are expected to complete a remarkable turnaround from finishing second last in 2016 to featuring in the Grand Final.
My tip: Having risen above expectations to hold a quarter chance of hoisting the premiership trophy aloft on Sunday week, the Cowboys will be eager to prove doubters wrong for the third straight match. With history on their side, the Roosters have had the perfect preparation to make amends for their patchy performance against Brisbane, yet a false sense of security has undone the Tri-Colours countless times over the years. Nothing is expected of the Cowboys, while on the measure of evidence the Roosters should qualify for the Grand Final - in either case the outcome won't be known until the final whistle. Roosters by 8.
1. Michael Gordon 3. Latrell Mitchell 14. Ryan Matterson 4. Mitchell Aubusson 5. Blake Ferguson 6. Luke Keary 7. Mitchell Pearce 8. Jared Waerea-Hargreaves 9. Jake Friend 10. Dylan Napa 11. Boyd Cordner 12. Aidan Guerra 13. Isaac Liu 14. Daniel Tupou 15. Sio Siua Taukeiaho 16. Zane Tetevano 17. Connor Watson
1. Lachlan Coote 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Justin O'Neill 4. Kane Linnett 5. Antonio Winterstein 6. Te Maire Martin 7. Michael Morgan 17. Shaun Fensom 9. Jake Granville 10. Scott Bolton 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Ethan Lowe 13. Jason Taumalolo 14. Ben Hampton 15. Coen Hess 16. Corey Jensen 17. John Asiata
Referees: Gerard Sutton, Adam Gee; Sideline Officials: Nick Beashel, Chris Sutton; Video Referees: Bernard Sutton, Luke Patten;