IT’S FINALLY HERE!
It has been 169 days between matches but top-level National Rugby League action returns to 1300SMILES Stadium on Saturday night.
Members and supporters are urged to get their tickets for the Round 1 blockbuster between the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys and Canberra Raiders, with the family-friendly 6pm kick-off time set to be a real crowd-pleaser.
There are plenty of great seats still available, and it’s not too late to lock in a same-seat season-long membership.
THE TEAM: INJURY, ILLNESS & INTRIGUE
Head coach Paul Green has trimmed his 21-man squad to 19 with young flyers Kalyn Ponga and Gideon Gela-Mosby expected to line up for the Cowboys NYC team and the Northern Pride respectively.
That leaves Javid Bowen as the sole winger to take Antonio Winterstein’s place on the left edge should the veteran campaigner be ruled out of the match.
Winterstein sprained his ankle in the Cowboys’ two-point trial win over Wests Tigers a fortnight ago, and has been racing the clock to be fit for game one.
He trained on Friday but will be further assessed on game day.
Should Bowen get the nod, it would mark three straight NRL games for the powerful speedster after coming into the 2016 finals series in week two as a replacement for injured centre Kane Linnett.
Bowen has 10 games under his belt after debuting in Round 5 last year, the 22-year-old scoring four tries to date.
Should Winterstein fail his fitness test, Hope Vale product Bowen will line up outside Linnett.
Whatever the left-edge combo, the Cowboys will have their hands full containing the Raiders’ famed “Leipana” combo of strike winger Jordan Rapana and dangerous centre Joey Leilua.
The duo achieved almost cult-like status in 2016 as the Raiders marched to within a whisker of a grand final appearance.
Uncertainty also surrounds inspirational co-captain Matt Scott, who was hospitalised this week with an infected leg.
The prop forward trained yesterday and is rated a better than 50 per cent chance of playing by Green.
Should Scott not be right to take his place, young Rockhampton product Sam Hoare will be waiting in the wings as 18th man.
BY THE NUMBERS
- Co-captain Johnathan Thurston needs five points to register 2,000 for his career. Thurston’s points consist of 85 tries, 820 goals and 15 field goals, with the bulk of them (1,955) scored during his 12-year stint as a Cowboy.
- Saturday's game is a clash between team No.2 (Raiders) and team No.4 (Cowboys) last season.
- Head to head: Played 37; Raiders won 21, Cowboys won 16.
- At 1300SMILES Stadium: Played 18; Cowboys won 11, Raiders won 7.
- Cowboys have won eight of past 11 clashes between the sides.
- Cowboys have not lost to the Raiders in Townsville since 2006.
- Raiders won the only game between the sides last year, prevailing 26-12 in Canberra.
- Cowboys are showing remarkable consistency across their squad, with the entire named first 13 having played in the 2015 grand final.
- Raiders crossed for 118 tries last year to the Cowboys’ 98 tries. Raiders conceded 79 tries to 58.
- Raiders scored 22 long-range tries (51-100m out) to the Cowboys’ two in 2016.
- Both teams completed high last year: Cowboys at 78% and Raiders at 77%.
Cowboys squad members not playing at 1300SMILES Stadium on Saturday will be in either Mackay or Brisbane plying their wares in the opening round of the Queensland Cup.
Mackay Cutters v Northern Pride
6pm, Saturday 4 March, BB Print Stadium, Mackay
Cutters: Of the three NQ feeder teams, the Cutters have been hardest hit by Cowboys’ injuries. Young prop Braden Uele – one of the Cowboys best in a trial match versus the Blackhawks a fortnight ago – is the lone NQ rep in Steve Sheppard’s team. John Asiata, Patrick Kaufusi, Kane Linnett, Lachlan Coote and possible Antonio Winterstein are all in the team to play the Raiders, while Josh Chudleigh (knee) and Shane Wright (jaw) are on the long-term injured list. There is some other Cowboys flavour to the team, though, with fullback Yamba Bowie a former NYC Cowboy and No.7 Cooper Bambling in last year’s 20s NQ team, as well as being an NRL squad train-and-triallist over the summer.
Pride: With Javid Bowen possibly playing first grade, and Scott Bolton, Coen Hess and Ben Hampton already in the side, the Pride will look to Cowboys NRL squad flyers Marcus Jensen and Gideon Gela-Mosby to provide strike on the edges. Both men have been leading try-scorers in the NYC, with Gela-Mosby coming off a sublime Auckland Nines campaign and Jensen returning to the field after having his appendix out. Up front, Patrick Mago and Ben Spina will lead the Pride pack, as will off-season Cowboys triallist Will Bugden.
Norths Devils v Townsville Blackhawks
3.30pm, Sunday 5 March, Bishop Park
Blackhawks: Brand-new Cowboys signing Shaun Fensom has been confirmed by Green as a starter for the Blackhawks despite only arriving in NQ last week. The veteran forward will be joined by former NRL player and Cowboys train-and-triallist Blake Leary. The Blackhawks will be steered around the park by five-eighth Kyle Laybutt, while forwards Corey Jensen and Sam Hoare will also be prominent. Ray Thompson and Shaun Hudson are both out with knee injuries, Hudson’s ruling him out for the year.