UPDATED Preview: North Queensland Cowboys vs Sydney Roosters

UPDATED: Matt Scott was cleared at the NRL Judiciary Wednesday night and is free to play against the Roosters tonight.

They say that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, and if that’s the case the Cowboys have flattered the pants off the Roosters. They flogged the Chooks’ assistant coach and made him a head coach. A full 35 per cent of their squad is made up of former Roosters in Kane Linnett, Antonio Winterstein, Ethan Lowe, John Asiata, Ben Hannant and the rarest of breeds, a local junior in James Tamou. And not to mention Tautau Moga, who’s out with another ACL tear just as he was with the Roosters.

It’s no wonder they won the comp last year: they learned from and borrowed from a team that’d won two since the Cowboys came into existence. So Roosters fans may as well claim this as an honorary premiership.

Why not? Cowboys fans were claiming premierships they didn’t win in the three years prior to 2015 thanks to a seventh tackle, the hand of Foz, and through claiming a game-deciding knock-on was actually a knock-back:

CowKnockon

If that was a Rooster instead of a Cowboy who knocked it on, Cowboys fans would call it a knock on. Because it’s a freakin’ knock-on. And let’s not forget 2004’s semi-final when Nathan Fien callously headbutted Luke Ricketson’s inner forearm and the Cowboys cried foul because the time didn’t stop near the end for a scrum, despite them not packing their side of it in time. By my count, that’s four premierships they didn’t win that their fans claim they would have, so let’s claim last year’s as one of ours.

Cowboys fans finally stopped crying wolf last year, however, as their team were finally crowned Premiers following a thrilling game in which Ben Hunt gifted them field position they didn’t earn (twice), Kyle Feldt scored a try after the siren, and Thurston took five minutes to miss a conversion.

And despite an indifferent start to the year, they’ll start as favourites in this one — when one can only hope the conspiracy theories are revived.

The Roosters. 

Latrell Mitchell retains his fullback spot in a sign that he’s now got the number one for good, and Dylan Napa narrowly escaped suspension for his hit on Joey Leilua. But with Vinnie Leuluai out injured, the Roosters have named Mitchell Frei to make his debut from an extended bench that includes Eloni Vunakece and Brendan Elliott.

Sio Siua Taukeiaho has been named in the starting line-up at the expense of Isaac Liu who drops back to the bench. Note in particular, however, the inclusion of Elliott on the extended bench. This could be insurance for Daniel Tupou who looked to re-aggravate a leg injury late against Canberra. According to Twitter’s sleuth @RamirezJnr:

Toopsinjury.JPG

So there indeed may be some late changes. Also, I know absolutely nothing about Eloni Vunakece, so I instead revert to our resident lower grades expert @Ando4285 (via Facebook):

Eloni.JPG

There you go. It’s a five day turnaround for the Roosters with both games on either end played on the road, so Robbo may indeed elect to use the likes of Vunakece instead of reserving a spot for Henderson, who didn’t play a single minute last week.

1 Latrell Mitchell; 2 Daniel Tupou; 3 Dale Copley; 4 Blake Ferguson; 5 Shaun Kenny-Dowall; 6 Jayden Nikorima; 7 Jackson Hastings; 8 Kane Evans; 9 Jake Friend (c); 10 Dylan Napa; 11 Aidan Guerra; ; 12 Mitchell Aubusson; 13 Sio Siua Taukeiaho. Interchange: 14 Isaac Liu; 15 Sam Moa; 16 Ian Henderson; 17 Mitchell Frei; 18 Eloni Vunakece; 21 Brendan Elliott. 

The Cowboys lost to the freakin’ Parramatta Eels last week… but really, throw that game in the bin, light the bin on fire and piss on the ashes. It was a deplorable match in which the Cowboys dominated the running metres by more than 200, but gave away 10 penalties (receiving just four) and spilled it 16 times. In the upset loss they missed 25 tackles, or one less than us versus Canberra and two fewer than Parramatta despite being forced to make 24 extra tackles than their opponents.

It was a god-awful game to watch, and they only barely beat the Sharks at home in week one… but while they aren’t in Premiership-winning form, it’s still form that’s better than the Roosters have shown so far. They don’t have a ton of weaknesses defensively that can be easily exploited. Against Parra they conceded a burrowing try from Nathan Peats and a try to a random forward linebreak off a deep play — and the Roosters don’t typically play that deep on the line (or at least they haven’t so far).

The Roosters may find some space though out in the backs and on Kane Linnett’s edge, out right, as this try by the Eels shows:

Eeels.gif

Runners shaped for the inside ball and outside, and confusion reigned supreme in the defence. Kieran Foran ultimately chose the right option in Brad Takairangi but the kick or cutout was also on and the inside ball also would have made some easy metres.

It seems a likely target for a similar play that the Roosters ran last week with Nikorima diving over, although ultimately it comes down to runners creating myriad options:

NikoTryRaiders

Here Nikorima exploits the retreating defence with speed, and while the options alongside Niko are dangerous in their own right in Ferguson and SKD, an extra runner on the inside could help — and that’s usually Guerra.

Look for the Roosters to also continue to try and aim chip kicks towards the spot between the centre and middle-edge, especially for Tupou, Copley and potentially Mitch Aubusson running an angled chase against the duo of Kyle Feldt and Justin O’Neill.

It comes down to platform, though, and the Roosters’ forward pack came up big against the Raiders. However, the heat is going to have a dramatic effect on the Roosters’ big fellas, especially given the five-day turnaround for another road trip. Coach Trent Robinson is going to have to use his interchange a bit more creatively this week to get the maximum rest for a banged-up, fatigued pack.

The Cowboys. 

The Cows suffered a shock loss to alleged Salary Cap cheats the Parramatta Eels last week, and at home to boot. Paul Green pulled a late minute swifty prior to that match, shifting Grand Final star Jake Granville to the bench in the place of Rory Kostjasyn.

If only Green’s name was Jasyn instead of Paul, we could have made the whole “Kostjasyn cost Jasyn a win” joke. Which I just made anyway. Well, the shift possibly cost Jason Taumalolo a win I guess, so it works. Yeah. I’m here all week.

Former Chooks assistant Green has named the same team that lost last week, and Matt Scott has been cleared to play after facing the judiciary last night following a crusher tackle charge and being found not guilty. Granville has been named to start.

1 Lachlan Coote; 2 Kyle Feldt; 3 Justin O’Neill; 4 Kane Linnett; 5 Antonio Winterstein; 6 Michael Morgan; 7 Johnathan Thurston (c); 8 Matthew Scott (c); 9 Jake Granville; 10 James Tamou; 11 Gavin Cooper; 12 Ethan Lowe; 13 Jason Taumalolo. Interchange: 14 Rory Kostjasyn; 15 John Asiata; 16 Scott Bolton; 17 Ben Hannant.

We’ve pointed out the noted weakness out on the right edge for the Roosters, and it is unlikely to have changed much in the five-day turnaround. Nikorima is averaging five misses a game with an additional four a game deemed ineffective, and if anyone doesn’t think Jonathan Thurston isn’t exploiting that, then they don’t know what a competitive maniac Jonathan Thurston is.

(Yep, that was a triple-negative, and it was totally warranted.)

With luck, Robbo will ensure Niko is accompanied by a forward at all times and isn’t stranded alongside only SKD as was the case here versus Papalii:

Papalii2nd

Taukeiaho was there and has defended well this year (no misses through two games) but was tied up in a marker role. So it might be easier said than done, and Niko at some stage is going to be isolated. Look for Gavin Cooper to be the battering ram when that happens.

Additionally, Niko’s lack of height could make him a target for the mid-range chip aimed for the towering Cooper, a play the Cows often run and run well. So blockers are going to need to be prepared and also the likes of the rangy types in Guerra and SKD to bat that shit away Dikembe-style.

The Roosters have to also be prepared for the suddenly-broad game of Taumalolo. The Cowboys have introduced a wrinkle into his game to force teams to second-guess the number of players a team must commit to bringing him down, and it comes in the form of a before-the-line passing game. With so many defenders primed to bring him down, it sucks a defence in and can cause things such as this to happen (he’s the first in the gif with the ball):

JTLinePass.gif

That before the line pass opened up both deep and flat plays for Thurston against a defence that was primed for a Taumalolo charge. It’s a play the Roosters should be prepared for in defence on Thursday, and also try and flog and deploy at some stage this season with SST in the Taumalolo role.

Prediction?

The Roosters haven’t lost three in a row to start a season since 2007. They also haven’t lost two in a row to start the season since that year for that matter, and while progress was made last week despite the loss, it’s really hard to envision a win against the defending premiers this Thursday.

It’s going to be stickier than a cobweb to velcro in Townsville tomorrow, with a forecast 73 per cent humidity mixed with a temp of 27 at game time and possible showers then too. We travelled to Canberra for the last game, and had five days to get to the North. Defensive issues surely will not have been able to be fixed in time and the attack is still too new to enable a shift away from the flat attack near the line that lacked imagination versus the Raiders.

Jackson Hastings is reportedly dealing with a quad complaint — hence him not kicking for goal — so Latrell is still probably the designated post-splitter, though it appears he needs a bit more practice because against the Raiders it showed he couldn’t kick a hotdog down a hallway without hitting brick.

But… Parramatta did beat the Cows last week, and Cronulla gave them a scare towards the end in round one, and that was in Townsville. So you never really know. Which is my motto for the season. We don’t know when this new spine is going to click onto a cohesive unit, and it could very well be this one. The backline finally makes sense and the talent is there against a team that would probably underestimate them.

Regardless, I think the Cows get home comfortably. But I am happy with effort and progress this year, and anything else is the cherry on a rapidly-rebuilding sundae.

 

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