Round 5: Cowboys v Storm preview
18 months ago, these two teams faced off in the 2017 NRL Grand Final.
Yep, that happened. It's hard to believe the polar opposites in these teams in the time that's elapsed since that day, although the Cowboys miracle run that year could've held clues. Following their 2015 title win, the Townsville side has been on a constant slide, with many regarding the miracles of September 2017 an abherration as experienced heads left one-by-one, culminating in the departure of Johnathan Thurston in 2018.
Melbourne meanwhile... well the Craig Bellamy era just continues to deliver. Grand Finalists three years running and indeed premiers in 2017, the Storm juggernaut shows few signs of slowing, even allowing for the high-profile losses of Cooper Cronk and Billy Slater. Captain and stalwart Cameron Smith remains and whilstever he pulls on the purple and navy number 9 jersey, they're a contender.
Of significant concern for the home team this week is their record at 1300SMILES Stadium in its farewell season. The Kirwan venue was always considered one of the toughest away trips in the competition, with visiting sides battling humidity and higher temperatures not seen at most other venues, even as winter sets in. And while those conditions may still prevail, the quality of opposition appears to have made the trek a little less daunting. Across three home games in the first four rounds, North Queensland have given up 84 points while only scoring 52 themselves. The dividend is a one-win, two-loss record from those three games. Another loss here could be disastrous not only for their season, but for attendances across the remainder of the year.
Things aren't perfect for the Storm though. They comfortably downed Penrith in Bathurst a fortnight ago, but on Sunday came up against a Bulldogs team few expected to stand up to the Storm. Melbourne got home by the barest of margins after trailing for much of the contest at AAMI Park and will have a bit to work on if they're to account for teams they should beat - including the Cowboys this Friday night.
A quick look at team news and surprsingly 2015 premiership coach Paul Green hasn't shuffled deck chairs much. Javid Bowen comes out of the backline with Enari Tuala coming in and Ben Hampton moving to the wing in an otherwise unchanged side. Melbourne's changes are forced - winger Suliasi Vunivalu has been suspended - however the return of Josh Addo-Carr means the replacements are relatively like-for-like, with Marion Seve shifting to the wing and Will Chambers returning to the centres.
Like against most opponents, the Storm dominate this fixture when it comes to the head-to-head record, winning 28 of 38 contests since the Storm's debut season in 1998. Last year Melbourne won both contests - a tense one-point thriller in Round 12 in Townsville, after having trounced the Cowboys 30-14 in the Round 3 'Grand Final re-match' played at AAMI Park.
Who to watch: In the absence of Jason Taumalolo, new signing Josh McGuire really has to take on some increased responsibility for the Cowboys in the back row. The Aspley Devils junior has taken a little while to gel into the Cowboys' pack but after four rounds, that excuse needs to go out the window and the performances ramp up. He's already shouldered a fair bit of extra work this year to his credit but with Taumalolo on the sidelines long-term he needs to call on his Maroons experience and become a real leader.
Melbourne centre Will Chambers was fairly well maligned after last year's Grand Final loss to the Roosters, with his defence efforts and discipline called into question in a game the Storm never looked likely in. To his credit, his wing-centre partnership with Marion Seve on the weekend was far more formidale, and the return of Josh Addo-Carr should help bolster his confidence there. How Chambers and the rest of the Storm outside defenders handle the Cowboys' changed three-quarter line will be a key to how this one plays out.
My tip: While it would be nice to think the Cowboys can produce a boilover and keep their season from slipping away so early, it's hard to see the Storm producing two relatively mediocre performances back-to-back. Storm by 18.