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3 hours ago | Tim Costello
A new era begins in North Queensland
In the nine years before Johnathan Thurston signed with the North Queensland Cowboys, the side's highest finish was 11th in a 15-team competition. In the 14 years the man dubbed ‘JT' plied his trade in Townsville, along with the season he announced his decision to leave Canterbury, the Cowboys qualified for the play-offs ten times, culminating in a premiership win in 2015. Few players have had such a monumental impact on a club as Thurston at North Queensland, so following his departure the question on the lips of every rugby league supporter is simple - can the Cowboys win without JT.
Beginning life without the Immortal in waiting as they have done since 2014 with an opening round match at home, the Cowboys will be hopeful of maintaining a strong start to the new season having won four of those five matches by six points or less. Adding to the home side's cause, the Cowboys have triumphed over the Dragons in eight of eleven meetings in Townsville dating back to the start of the millennium, while the Dragons have won just over a third of Round 1 away matches.
Naming four new faces including Dragons try-scoring specialist Nene MacDonald and Brisbane trio Jordan Kahu, Tom Opacic and Josh McGuire, Te Maire Martin has beaten out young gun Jake Clifford for the right to partner new captain Michael Morgan in the halves, while in the wake of Scott Bolton's suspension stemming from a common assault charge, coach Paul Green has elevated 22-year-old forward Mitchell Dunn onto the bench.
Coming into the season proper after accounting for the Titans and Storm in the trials, coach Green will be banking on the collective experience of his side to get the job done, with the 21 players named on Tuesday afternoon accounting for approximately 2000 NRL matches, 100 tests and 50 origins.
Keen to amend for an agonising exit in the Second Semi Final six months ago, the St. George Illawarra Dragons will be thankful to get back to the weekly ritual of first grade rugby league following a tumultuous off-season.
Unable to draw upon Jack de Belin for the immediate future after the NSW representative was stood down due to ongoing criminal proceedings, the Red V will be hoping recent history against their opponents stands them in good stead after winning four of the six matches with Paul McGregor and Paul Green in charge of the Dragons and Cowboys respectively.
Maintaining the majority of last season's squad, talented, yet controversial recruit Corey Norman will reunite with former Broncos teammate Ben Hunt in the halves, allowing captain Gareth Widdop to shift to fullback for his final season in the NRL. Set to be without versatile forward Korbin Sims due to a suspension incurred during the finals last year, Tyson Frizell has been named at lock with Jacob Host to start in the second row, while Mikaele Ravalawa has been rewarded for strong pre-season form with an NRL debut partnering Jordan Pereira on the wings.
Getting the better of Newcastle before going down to South Sydney during the trials, the loss of de Belin is set to take a toll on the joint venture, yet with the likes of Graham, Vaughan, Sims and Frizell on hand, the battle of the forwards should make for an engrossing contest.
Last meeting: Round 19 2018 - Cowboys 10 Dragons 24
Who to watch: Representing the New Zealand Maori while still contracted to Brisbane a month ago, Jordan Kahu will be out to make up for lost time in his club debut on Saturday evening. Brought to Townsville on a one-year deal following the termination of Ben Barba's contract, the 28-year-old New Zealand international will play a pivotal role as the side's first choice goal kicker - a role previously held by Johnathan Thurston for well over a decade. Known for his try scoring prowess and ability to nail a field goal in high-pressure situations, Kahu may only be a temporary solution for North Queensland until Valentine Holmes re-enters the player market, but if his past feats are indicative of things to come, the Cowboys won't be the only club chasing his signature for 2020.
Enjoying a career best season in 2018, Tariq Sims will be out to enhance his reputation as one of the most formidable players in the NRL. Known for belting opponents in defence and terrorising them with the ball in hand - as the Broncos can attest to following his three try haul in the finals last year - the 29-year-old New South Wales representative will relish the opportunity to face off against one of the competition's premier forward packs. Making his first grade debut with the Cowboys back in 2011, the Dragons second rower will forever have fond memories of his time in Townsville, but be more than ready to put nostalgia to the side on Saturday night for the sake of two competition points.
The favourite: Playing on home soil and facing a side reeling from negative headlines, the Cowboys are expected to start life without JT on a positive note.
My tip: Winning six opening round fixtures this decade, including the past two by margins of more than 20 points, the Dragons will fancy their chances of getting 2019 off to a strong start. Dragons by 16.
1. Jordan Kahu 2. Javid Bowen 3. Justin O'Neill 4. Tom Opacic 5. Nene Macdonald 6. Te Maire Martin 7. Michael Morgan 8. Matt Scott 9. Jake Granville 10. Jordan McLean 15. Josh McGuire 12. Coen Hess 13. Jason Taumalolo 14. John Asiata 11. Gavin Cooper 16. Mitchell Dunn 17. Francis Molo
1. Gareth Widdop 2. Jordan Pereira 3. Euan Aitken 4. Timoteo Lafai 5. Mikaele Ravalawa 6. Corey Norman 7. Ben Hunt 8. James Graham 9. Cameron McInnes 10. Paul Vaughan 11. Jacob Host 12. Tariq Sims 13. Tyson Frizell 14. Jeremy Latimore 15. Matthew Dufty 16. Blake Lawrie 17. Luciano Leilua
Referees: Ben Cummins, Ziggy Przeklasa-Adamski; Sideline Officials: Nick Morel, Todd Smith; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy, Ben Lowe;