Match preview: Cowboys v Bulldogs

Cowboys v Bulldogs
7.50pm Thursday
ANZ Stadium
Broadcast: Fox Sports, 4TOFM Cowboys Call Team, Twitter @nthqldcowboys

The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys don a colourful new strip and will be wanting the mood post-match Thursday to be as bright as their attire as Round 10 opponents Canterbury loom large.

The Cowboys-Bulldogs clash at ANZ Stadium kick-starts the National Rugby League’s Indigenous Round, with – for the first time in history – all 16 clubs wearing specially designed Indigenous jerseys.

The Cowboys’ striking strip was designed by Ipswich artist Albert Bosen, who will be proudly cheering North Queensland on as they aim for a return to the winner’s circle and the retention of the Reconciliation Cup.

The Cup is contested between the Cowboys and Bulldogs each year and is in its 11th staging, with the Cowboys playing for a fourth straight win following a 36-0 victory last year, a 23-16 triumph in 2015 and a 20-12 result in 2014.

An away win coming off the Rep Round would be the perfect answer to the Cowboys’ disappointing last-start loss to the Eels at 1300SMILES Stadium as the team look to stay in touch with the top eight, with the season’s mid-point just around the corner.

The Cowboys currently sit in ninth place on the NRL ladder with five wins and four losses, while the Bulldogs are one spot above their opponents with a five-four record also, but slightly ahead on points differential.

REASSEMBLING THE TROOPS

The visitors left for Sydney on Wednesday fielding a rejigged side as hooker Jake Granville, fullback Lachlan Coote and core forward Shaun Fensom all return from injury lay-off.

Coote (calf) will be keen to find his groove after already missing six games this year as back-to-back calf ailments dogged him longer than hoped for.

Granville (broken leg) has also missed a month of footy, while the hard-working Fensom (ankle) returns after a three-match stint on the sidelines.

And while head coach Paul Green will gladly welcome the trio back, he will again be without inspirational skipper Johnathan Thurston, who hurt his shoulder in last week’s Australia-New Zealand Test match, that injury coming in his first match back from three club games out with a calf injury.

THE LINEUP

So, as you can see, the team is faced with a series of personnel challenges, but Green has still selected a strong team regardless, with tough-as-nails utility Ray Thompson set to call the shots alongside Michael Morgan in the halves.

Thompson has been inspirational in his two NRL hit-outs this year, with Green needing all the veteran’s guile and experience to help the Cowboys secure a third away win of the year.

Coote’s inclusion in his customary fullback role means livewire teen Kalyn Ponga moves back into Aaron Payne’s Under-20s team, while Fensom retains an interchange spot upon his return.

Up front, Green has tinkered with his rotation, moving back-rower Coen Hess to the bench as the versatile Ethan Lowe rejoins edge partner Gavin Cooper in the first 13.

John Asiata – fresh after only playing a handful of minutes for Samoa against England – will start as a middle forward alongside Jason Taumalolo and Scott Bolton.

WINNING RUNS

In head-to-head clashes between the sides, the Doggies hold a 21 to 14 advantage in all-time encounters.

At ANZ Stadium, honours are split with three wins apiece.

It’s rest matches, though, which spit up some interesting results: the Cowboys are on a four-game against the blue-and-whites, while before that, the Dogs had won three of four matches.

The Sydney-siders’ biggest win over NQ was way back in 1995, the Cowboys’ foundation year, with a 66-4 scoreline.

The Cowboys have twice bested the Bulldogs by 36 points: 36-0 last year and 48-12 on the Gold Coast in 2005.

BETTER FOR THE BREAK

While the Cowboys didn’t get through the Rep Round bye weekend unscathed – Thurston did his shoulder and Pat Kaufusi has a foot injury – there were some positive signs from the other reps who will front at ANZ Stadium on Thursday.

Morgan played a nice cameo for the Kangaroos in their big win over New Zealand, and Samoan internationals Antonio Winterstein and Asiata are ready to go after Saturday’s loss to England.

Also impressing – for the Queensland Residents – were Blake Leary and Kyle Laybutt, both of whom were named in Green’s extended squad heading into Thursday’s match.

IMPORTANT PERIOD

With North Queensland entering into a challenging period of the season – the team play six of their next eight matches away from home – victory on Thursday would be a huge fillip for a side that has bravely battled an injury toll not seen at the club for many a season.

Thursday’s game against the Dogs will be followed by a second Thursday night showdown in the Harbour City, this time against defending champs Cronulla.