Round 12: Cowboys v Storm preview
Grand Final combatants face off in vastly different circumstances.
Whether a side concedes a half-century or a penalty after the siren to see their efforts amount to nought, the end result on the competition ladder is largely identical. Much-maligned for their efforts all season, the Cowboys produced their most accomplished 80 minute performance against the Rabbitohs, only to suffer the utter devastation of losing after the siren. Having experienced such a heartbreaking loss despite playing with the commitment and patience that has been lacking for most of 2018, the prospect of facing off against their opponents from last season's decider may be the making or breaking of North Queensland's season. Benefitting from the inclusion of fresh faces Enari Tuala and Francis Molo against South Sydney, coach Paul Green has retained the side that performed valiantly six days earlier, with premiership winners Lachlan Coote and Ethan Lowe relegated to the extended squad. Holding a lacklustre 31% strike rate against the Storm in North Queensland, the Cowboys will be hopeful that the 150 NRL game milestone recorded by former Melbourne outside back Justin O'Neill galvanises the home side to turn their struggling campaign around.
Given a glimpse of what may lay ahead in the post-Cameron Smith era against Manly, the Storm will be desperate to atone for an abysmal showing at home last Saturday. Demonstrating ineptitude in their ability to control possession and build pressure on their opponents, the return of the all time highest-capped player should bring about a vastly improved showing, however with the primary directive handed down by coach Craig Bellamy likely to stress the importance of controlling possession and remaining patient in defence, the overall team performance should be based upon individual responsibility. Losing centre Curtis Scott following his violent confrontation with Dylan Walker, Papua New Guinean international Justin Olam has been handed an opportunity to press his claims in the top grade, while the return of former New Zealand captain Jesse Bromwich should improve the Storm's overall go-forward. Holding an impressive record against the Cowboys with a run of seven consecutive victories by a combined scoreline of 160-82, the Victorian-based outfit will have additional incentive to rise to the occasion with former Canterbury duo Dale Finucane and Sam Kasiano celebrating 150 NRL games.
These sides also met in the pre-season for the Cameron Smith-Johnathan Thurston testimonial, won by the Cowboys 16-14 at Suncorp Stadium.
Who to watch: Debuting in first grade as a 24-year-old fullback-come-hooker, the prospect of Jake Granville entering serious representative discussions appeared to be an unfathomable fantasy when handed his debut at Brisbane in 2013. Taking ownership of his career by shifting to the Cowboys three years ago, the speedy hooker played an instrumental role in the club's maiden premiership win and will relish the opportunity to stake his claim for an Origin birth against the very man he is looking to take over from. Responsible for conceding the decisive penalty last Saturday, Granville will be looking to validate the faith shown by coach Paul Green with a redemptive showing against the reigning champions. With former Broncos teammate Andrew McCullough appearing to have the inside running for the recently vacated Queensland number nine role, Granville will have his sights set on outplaying Smith on Friday night in an effort to show Kevin Walters that if the Maroons have to replace arguably the best player of all time, who better to do the job than someone who beat the best.
Producing one of the best individual performances on debut for Queensland in last year's decider, Cameron Munster has come to be regarded as the pre-determined choice to replace Johnathan Thurston for the Maroons in the upcoming Origin series. Much like Jake Granville facing off against Cameron Smith, the opportunity for the 23-year-old playmaker to press his claims against one of the greatest players of all time should inspire the Melbourne premiership winner to rise to the occasion on Friday night, while allaying concerns from Queensland insiders about the succession plan for continued interstate dominance. With a lack of viable goal kicking options among the likely Maroons squad, the versatile outside back could have additional responsibility thrust upon him in what looms as a transitory series in the history of Origin. As one of many culpable players to dish up ‘crap' according to Craig Bellamy last week, Munster will be eager to make amends against the Cowboys and prove that against the rugby league elite, he possesses the skills needed to succeed in all stages of the game.
The favourite: Finishing ahead on the scoreboard in their previous seven meetings against the Cowboys, the Storm have been heavily supported to extend North Queensland's discontent into the beginning of Winter.
My tip: With neither side rising to the heights expected prior to the commencement of the season, Friday's return fixture shapes as a pivotal encounter for both teams. Languishing in 15th position the likelihood of a reversal in fortune for the Cowboys is becoming increasingly unlikely, while in sitting outside the top four Melbourne are a far cry from the gods among men of 2017. Likely to be the final time Thurston and Smith face off at club level, look for a much-improved Storm performance to consign North Queensland to a second half of the year focussed on 2019. Storm by 2.