NRL.com match preview
Elimination Final 1
Cowboys v Broncos
Before you write off the Broncos' limping into the finals on the back of results going their way while the Cowboys knocked off the battle-hardened Sea Eagles to finish fifth, consider this: The Broncos have won 74 per cent of all games they have played in Townsville. The Cowboys? Just 47 per cent.
When we seem so focused on the advantage handed to home teams in the 2014 Telstra Premiership Finals Series the Broncos can prepare knowing that the enemy territory awaiting them holds plenty of fond memories.
They have lost just five times from 22 appearances at 1300SMILES Stadium but two of those have been in sudden-death semi-finals that ended their seasons in 2004 and then 2012. The Cowboys' 33-16 win two years ago was the first shift away from the McIntyre System to a format that pitted fifth against eighth, as is the case again this week.
That Round 26 could play out in such a fashion to deliver a rematch of the 2004 Elimination Final on its 10-year anniversary gives the suggestion that one of the rugby league gods at least wears Maroon but there are only two current players with memories of the night the Queensland power base shifted northward.
Ten years on Sam Thaiday and Corey Parker may not recall so fondly the gesture of the Broncos to offer to play that final in Townsville rather than Sydney, although the Broncos' first suggestion was to play it at Suncorp. Since that time they have lost four of 11 visits to North Queensland having won their first eight games there after the Cowboys' admission into the competition in 1995.
Thaiday will be refreshed and revitalised having thought his season was going to have been finished at the hand of the match review committee last week while Justin Hodges will not play as poor a half again while ever he is a Bronco as he did last Friday against the Storm.
But there's no getting away from the fact that the Cowboys come into the finals as arguably the hottest team in the NRL with seven wins from the last eight games, their only hiccup a one-point loss to the Panthers in Round 23.
Although they made hard work of defeating the Sharks in Round 25, wins over the Bulldogs, Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles represents nigh on the perfect preparation for the cut-throat month that lies ahead.
The forwards are firing, JT one, two and three are in top form and the outside backs are scoring tries at every opportunity but finals footy has a habit of doing funny things to teams.
Coach Paul Green has the luxury of naming an unchanged 17 for the start of the business end of the season while the Broncos have been forced to make a backline reshuffle following the shoulder injury to Jack Reed last weekend.
Corey Oates has been named to take Reed's place in the centres, Thaiday returns to the starting side and Ben Hannant reverts to the bench.
Watch Out Cowboys: To beat the Cowboys the Broncos are going to have to win the middle third of the field and their chances will be enhanced if Josh McGuire can reproduce his powerhouse display against the Storm last week. In a beaten side McGuire was one of the best players on the field with the numbers backing up the whole-hearted effort over 66 minutes. His 25 touches were the most McGuire has had in a game this season with his 164 metres from 19-hit-ups (equal highest of the season) the fourth time he has busted through the 150m mark in his past six games. He gives away a bit of size to the likes of Scott, Sims and Tamou but makes up for it with determined aggression and along with Corey Parker is the primary metre-eater in the Broncos' middle.
Watch Out Broncos: A fractured cheekbone in Origin II confined Matt Scott to a rehab-contained existence that is the nightmare of all footballers and since being unleashed he has run roughshod over just about every defence that has tried to stop him. Since his return in Round 21 Scott has run for 1119 metres at an average of 186m per game as well as six offloads and 22 tackle breaks. His six tackle breaks against the Sea Eagles last Saturday night helped him to rack up 191m and he is the No.1 man the Broncos have to stop to advance their season into Week Two.
Plays To Watch: Over the past month the Cowboys have unveiled some nice variations on the sweeping play out the back that involve a big forward running a wide block run for one of the playmakers to pick up Michael Morgan surging back on the inside, especially at a tiring defence. Ray Thompson's energy out of dummy-half also gave the Cowboys a noticeable lift against the Sea Eagles and gave his forwards strong momentum through the middle. The Broncos' execution was poor in their loss to Melbourne and Justin Hodges had an uncharacteristic poor opening half; expect the attack to look a lot crisper this week.
Where It Will Be Won: The opening 20 minutes of this one is where Brisbane will either set up a thrilling finals run, or bid their fans and coach a fond farewell for 2014. The Broncos were unable to match it with the Storm in the opening exchanges last Friday night to trail 12-0 after 21 minutes, a deficit they were never able to peg back. It was the 10th time this season they have lost the first quarter while their opposition this week have proven to be strong starters. The Cowboys have only trailed after 20 minutes six times all season and have only lost twice after leading into half-time on 14 occasions this year. The Broncos' best period is the 20 minutes before half-time but they need to keep pace in the first quarter to be any hope.
History: Played 38; Broncos 27; Cowboys 9; drawn 2. Wayne Bennett's Broncos graciously offered to play their elimination final in Townsville in 2004 and the result was a 10-0 victory by the Cowboys, their first win over their nearest and greatest rival. The two teams have met in a finals match only once since and again it was the Cowboys victorious in Townsville, a 33-16 win in 2012 that announced the arrival of Michael Morgan who scored a hat-trick playing at halfback.
Match Officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee: Ben Cummins; Touch Judges: Steve Carrall and Brett Suttor; Video Referees: Ashley Klein and Luke Phillips.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm.
How We See It: There are enough old heads in the Brisbane team for a trip to Townsville in Week One of sudden-death to be an exciting – rather than a daunting – prospect. How much nervous energy they used getting the Raiders and Warriors home last weekend remains to be seen but with improved execution in attack the Broncos have shown they can post plenty of points when in the mood. The Cowboys on the other hand saw a top four finish snatched from them at the last possible moment and now have to put their season on the line in one 80-minute performance. The pressure is on the Cowboys but thankfully they have the man for the occasion in Johnathan Thurston. Cowboys to score a late try and win by eight points.
This article first appeared on NRL.com