Round 20: Broncos v Cowboys preview
Seasons of misery come to a close for Broncos, Cowboys
In a year few, if any, could have predicted, it remains to be seen whether the Brisbane Broncos have finally hit rock bottom. What can be said with certainty - it's hard to imagine how things could get much worse for the club once considered as the benchmark of the league.
Most consecutive losses (10). Most losses in a season (16). Biggest ever loss (59-0). Most points conceded (592). Least points scored (252). Worst points differential (-340). Baffling recruitment decisions. Horror runs with injury. Underperforming star players. Sacking a coach mid-season. COVID-19 breach notices. Former greats publicly criticising the club.
Rival supporters may have watched on with schadenfreude earlier in the season, but following a single win since the COVID resumption - over the lowly Bulldogs - the only feeling left for the club is pity.
Heading into the final round after a 26-12 loss to the Eels last Friday, interim coach Peter Gentle will be hoping the side can avoid the wooden spoon by continuing a strong record of five wins from their past six meetings against North Queensland.
Boosted by the return of Payne Haas, Jordan Riki and Jesse Arthars, star centre Kotoni Staggs has been named in the halves for the first time.
Set to make his 337th appearance in the NRL to surpass Brad Fittler and John Sutton as the ninth most-capped player in the history of Australian rugby league, Darius Boyd will line up for the final time after a career spanning 15 seasons with Brisbane, St George Illawarra and Newcastle.
Flying largely under the radar despite winning just four matches all year, the North Queensland Cowboys will be determined to finish their dreadful year on a high note.
Standing in slightly better stead for the future than their long-time rivals following the appointment of Todd Payten as coach for next year, the Cowboys have appeared off the pace for much of the season.
Boasting the second worst defence in the league, parting ways with premiership-winning coach Paul Green midway through the year and losing nine-in-a-row between Round 8 - 16, the rare spark of life for the men from Townsville has been the emergence of young guns Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Tom Gilbert and Daejarn Asi.
Unable to keep up with the Panthers during last Friday's 32-12 loss at home, interim coach Josh Hannay will be out to defy a horror record at Suncorp Stadium where the Cowboys have won once in their past ten visits.
In team news, Daejarn Asi retains his place in the centres after being elevated to the starting side last week, while representative forwards John Asiata and Josh McGuire return to the pack from suspension.
Finishing as the fourth most-capped player for North Queensland behind Johnathan Thurston, Matt Bowen and Matt Scott, premiership-winning second-rower Gavin Cooper will make his final appearance for the Cowboys before embarking on a new chapter.
Who to watch: In a year that has provided Brisbane supporters with little respite, the efforts of Patrick Carrigan have been a rare source of solace. Regularly tasked with the responsibility of leading the side in the absence of established stars, the 22-year-old lock has stood up with 154 metres and 45 tackles on average. Touted as a bolter for the post-season Origin series, Carrigan will have no shortage of motivation as the side fights to get off the bottom of the premiership ladder.
Enduring a difficult return to rugby league after an ill-fated attempt at the NFL, Valentine Holmes will be looking to put himself in contention for a place in the Queensland Origin squad. Missing two months of football during the middle third of the year with an ankle injury, the 25-year-old has shown fleeting moments of class in recent weeks, most notably nailing a field goal in golden point against the Dragons. With the Maroons facing a dearth of experienced outside backs, Holmes will be out to showcase his skills as a game breaker in the Queensland derby.
The favourite: Despite winning just one match away from home all season, the Cowboys are slight favourites to finish the year on a high.
My tip: Having gone 14 seasons without winning anything in the NRL, the Brisbane Broncos will be able to celebrate a deserved addition to their trophy cabinet on Thursday evening. Cowboys by 6.