Round 20: Cowboys v Knights preview
Having experienced the heights of rugby league over the past seven years with annual appearances in the play-offs, qualifying for two premiership deciders and a culminating grand final victory, the decline of the North Queensland Cowboys has been staggering to behold in 2018.
Rated as front-runners to take out the title courtesy of a quality recruitment drive and regaining the services of co-captains Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, the effects of last season's monumental surge against the odds has seen the Cowboys plummet from premiership contenders to eyeing off an embarrassing wooden spoon finish.
Despite retaining every member of the squad that featured in the grand final loss to Melbourne, the inability of Paul Green' side to replicate the standard of recent seasons has left the Cowboys in a frustrating position of relying upon underperforming veterans and injecting promising youngsters in an effort to build towards the future. Blooding rookies Enari Tuala, Mitchell Dunn and Jake Clifford at the expense of established premiership winners Lachlan Coote and Ethan Lowe, the need for a roster overhaul will be crucial in ensuring the disappointment of 2018 is merely an anomaly and not indicative of leaner years to come.
Retaining the same squad that went down 24-10 to the Dragons last Saturday, marquee off-season signing Jordan McLean could be a late inclusion to play his first match since Round 4 after being named as part of the extended bench.
Fighting back from a 14-point deficit to secure a rousing victory in front of their home supporters last Saturday, the Newcastle Knights will be out to keep their faint finals hopes alive with a rare victory in Townsville.
Posting a season best attacking display with 20 unanswered points in the second half against the Titans, coach Nathan Brown will be stressing the importance of Friday night's fixture with the Knights needing to make up ground on the current top eight candidates, along with fending off spirited charges from the Tigers and Raiders in similar pursuit of the play-offs.
Enduring a lean run against North Queensland in recent years with just four wins during the 2010s, the squad named by Nathan Brown will be looking to create a piece of history with none of the players selected having experienced a win over the Cowboys while representing the Knights. Of the four members remaining from the 2015 roster that last triumphed in Townsville, only then-teenager Sione Mata'utia participated in the 16-14 win while Danny Levi, Nathan Ross and Lachlan Fitzgibbon were yet to make their NRL debuts.
Boosted by the return of superstar fullback Kalyn Ponga in his first appearance against North Queensland, former captain Sione Mata'utia will make his return earlier than expected in a backline reshuffle that sees Cory Denniss and Nick Meaney relegated to the extended squad.
Last meeting: Round 8 2017 - Cowboys 24 Knights 12
- Of the 36 meetings between the two sides since 1995, the Knights hold a slender 19-17 lead over the Cowboys. In the 18 matches played in Townsville the home side has prevailed on 11 occasions.
- Over the past decade Newcastle has managed three wins from ten clashes in North Queensland, conceding 100 more points in the process to be outscored 264-164.
- The Knights hold the premiership record for the most points scored in a first half (48) in their 60-24 win in Townsville back in 2003.
Personal Duel - Johnathan Thurston v Kalyn Ponga
With one of rugby league's greatest ever players facing off against the rising star of the NRL, the showdown between Thurston and Ponga will determine whether the retiring champion can still teach the young dynamo a footballing lesson or whether the changing of the guard has well-and-truly arrived.
In a year that has left much to be desired for the Cowboys, Johnathan Thurston's return from injury has seen the legendary halfback struggle to dominate opponents in the manner he did just a few years ago. With six matches left in a career that has redefined the heights a player can achieve, the prospect of finishing such a storied career with the wooden spoon should inspire the 35-year-old to dig deep and avoid a departure unbefitting of arguably the greatest number seven of all time.
Taking up a deal with Newcastle in order to establish himself as a regular first grader, the career progression undertaken by Kalyn Ponga in a short space of time has been remarkable to witness. Returning from a hamstring injury that saw him miss the final match of this year's Origin series, the Queensland superstar will be intent upon proving to the Cowboys that having learnt from some of the finest players in the game as a junior, he is set to be held in the same esteem as them with his efforts at the Knights.
With Thurston being one of the faces of rugby league over the past decade and Ponga set for a similar trajectory in years to come, the showdown on Friday night should serve as a pivotal moment in their respective careers.
With Newcastle needing to win and wait patiently for teams in the lower half of the top eight to cannibalise each other, the prospect of making an unlikely surge towards September remains a possibility for the Knights. Facing off against a perpetually deflated North Queensland outfit, the Knights should prove too strong if their ambitions of featuring beyond the home-and-away season are genuine. Knights by 9.
This preview originally appeared at Robert Crosby, writer.