Round 6: Cowboys v Bulldogs preview
Battlers look to turn the tide in North Queensland
Touted as early season favourites to take out the premiership, the North Queensland Cowboys find themselves situated in their worst start to a season since 2009. Recording an opening round win followed by four losses, each arguably less impressive than the one that preceded it, the effects of last season's finals run appear to have taken a damning toll upon a club that has developed into one of the competitions elite in recent years. Facing off against an equally poor Bulldogs side, the stakes of Saturday's match should ensure plenty of desperation is displayed as the Cowboys look to steady the course and assume the mantle of premiership threats that has been thrust upon them. Boosted by the return of Lachlan Coote after a successful return by way of the Mackay Cutters, the resulting reshuffle sees utility Ben Hampton shift into the centres, while Javid Bowen has been relegated to the extended bench. Still boasting 13 members of the premiership winning squad of 2015, the struggles faced by the Cowboys in adjusting for the returns of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott will need to be rectified shortly or else the leadership shown by Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo last season will need to take over to ensure 2018 is not a season lost for North Queensland.
Having deemed Des Hasler's methods had run their course following an unsuccessful 2017 campaign, the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs find themselves in the precarious position of regressing further despite taking a stand against declining standards. Winning just one of their first five matches with the number of convincing losses far outweighing respectable defeats, the need to increase their attacking capacity and finish ahead on the scoreboard after 80 minutes is not quite at a critical mass of concern, but based on recent trends serious questions regarding the state of roster management and individual performances are increasing in volume. Retaining the same squad that failed to capitalise on an injury-affected Raiders outfit last Thursday, the Bulldogs will be hopeful Josh Jackson's mid-week victory at the judiciary serves as an omen for better things to come on Saturday evening. In a sign indicative of the side's struggles over the past five weeks, the impact provided off the bench can be seen as among the least formidable in the competition, suggesting the depth of talent to draw upon at the club is far from the reliability of years gone by, most recently the trio of NSW Cup titles recorded during 2009-11 that paved the way for the likes of Ben Barba, Josh Reynolds, Tim Browne and Martin Taupau to become established first graders. Failing to record a single victory over the Cowboys during Paul Green's tenure as North Queensland coach, rookie mentor Dean Pay will need his side to step up or else the optimism of returning to the finals may be replaced by the harsh reality of vying to avoid the wooden spoon.
Who to watch: While criticism of Johnathan Thurston has been mounting in response to the Cowboys recent run of losses, the player with the greatest capacity to elevate the side back into from is Michael Morgan. Adorned with accolades for his development in leading the Townsville-based club to the premiership decider last season, the 26-year-old's ability to complement the legendary Queensland playmaker has long been the decisive factor in realising the potential of the side into on-field success. Most notably providing the assist to send the 2015 Grand Final into extra time, Morgan's strength in complementing Thurston has allowed the side to flourish, however in the wake of last season's changing of the guard, the dynamic between the pair has seen the performance of team suffer overall. Demonstrating his poise to take ownership of the club last season, the responsibility of ensuring Thurston's final season in first grade finishes on a high note lays with Morgan's choice to either command the dominant playmaking responsibility or revert back to the supporting figure that has served North Queensland so well during Paul Green's tenure.
Having played the majority of his career in the halves, the decision to switch Moses Mbye to fullback has been a rare tactical success for Canterbury in an otherwise underwhelming start to 2018. Providing an attacking spark that has generated some of the best offensive plays seen in the Blue and White since the days of Ben Barba, the 24-year-old has been a standout in a side that has lacked confidence over the opening weeks of the season. While the Bulldogs boast a number of highly regarded figures throughout their current squad, the intuitive feeling surrounding the early days of Dean Pay's tenure at the helm is that with the exception of Mbye, as a whole there is an overarching staleness throughout the roster that can only be remedied with an overhaul. While history shows that rosters considered underwhelming have the potential to be reinvigorated with the addition of youthful enthusiasm, the decision to shift Mbye into an attacking-focused role may well prove to be the catalyst needed to turn the Bulldogs fortunes around.
The favourite: Returning home after a disappointing venture across the ditch, the Cowboys are expected to prove too strong for a Bulldogs outfit that has struggled in Townsville over the past five seasons.
My tip: While both sides have failed to reach any great heights so far this year, the Cowboys appear to boast the greater attacking potential which should see them prevail with a much-needed win. Cowboys by 12.