Round 24: Cowboys v Bulldogs preview
Cowboys look to farewell 1300SMILES on a high
Facing off against the Bulldogs in their first premiership match at the Townsville venue back in 1995, the North Queensland Cowboys will be eager to give their beloved home ground a fitting send off before taking up residence at the brand new North Queensland Stadium next season.
Breaking a run of five losses to down Penrith 24-10 last Friday, coach Paul Green will be hoping to continue his strong record against the blue and whites having won five of seven meetings during his tenure.
Opting to stick solid with the team that downed the Panthers last week, halfback Jake Clifford may be a late inclusion, while in honour of legendary front rower Matt Scott, the club will retire his number eight jersey as a sign of respect for the 2015 premiership winning co-captain.
Chasing five consecutive wins for the first time in four years, the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs will be eager to continue their resurgence as they eye off an unlikely top eight finish.
Needing a host of results to fall in their favour after a dismal opening to 2019 that saw the side manage just three wins over the first 14 rounds, the Bulldogs have developed into one of the form teams of the competition to sit three points outside the top eight following six wins from their past eight matches.
Holding a dominant record in Townsville with 13 wins from 18 appearances dating back to the mid-90s, coach Dean Pay will be quietly confident having coached back-to-back wins over the Cowboys during his tenure.
Losing leading try-scorer Reimis Smith with a one-match ban for leading with the head in last week's 12-6 win over Parramatta, impressive rookie Jayden Okunbor will make his first appearance since May in an otherwise unchanged side.
Who to watch: In a year that has provided North Queensland with little to celebrate, the development of John Asiata has been a rare shining light. Enjoying a career best campaign by establishing a reputation as a big man with the skills of a playmaker, the 26-year-old Tongan international has stood up to provide the Cowboys with a much-needed attacking spark following the retirement of Johnathan Thurston. Contracted to the club until the end of next season, look for Asiata to cause the Bulldogs plenty of headaches as he strives to finish the year on a high note.
Making the most of his time in the top grade after spending much of 2019 languishing in Canterbury Cup NSW, Renouf To'omaga has shown plenty of promise in seven appearances this season. Featuring exclusively off the bench after playing a prominent role in the club's reserve grade success last year, the 24-year-old Porirua junior has averaged modest stats in just over a quarter of game time over the past two months. Contracted to the Bulldogs for another season, look for To'omaga to make a big impact on Thursday night as he presses his case for a regular place in Dean Pay's 2020 squad.
My tip: Having spoiled the Cowboys first match in Townsville with a 32-16 win more than two decades ago, look for the Bulldogs to produce a similar result on Thursday night to set up a final round clash with huge ramifications for the top eight. Bulldogs by 4.