Cowboys v Raiders
7.30pm Saturday, GIO Stadium
A team desperate to inject some positive momentum back into their season versus a team proudly showing what they can do without their star attractions sets the scene for a hot National Rugby League showdown in chilly climes this weekend.
The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys travel to the nation’s capital for Saturday’s Round 17 showdown with the Canberra Raiders, where a win to the visitors will further entrench them in the top eight.
Paul Green’s men are riding a wave of goodwill that has emerged out of the bad news following the announcement last week that inspirational skipper Johnathan Thurston will join fellow leader Matt Scott on the sidelines for the remainder of 2017.
Thurston has had a rotator cuff repair on the shoulder he hurt during the second State of Origin match in Sydney, the fearless warrior playing on while wounded to lead the Maroons to a stirring series-equalling victory.
Scott’s season was over in Round 2 after he tore his ACL against the Broncos, with tireless veteran Gavin Cooper tasked with leading the side for the rest of their 2017 campaign.
Life in the Cooper era got off to a tremendous start last weekend after the Cowboys snatched an epic win over the Panthers when Kyle Feldt – with a gravity-defying screamer – and Ethan Lowe – with a pressure sideline conversion – combined to land the one-two knockout punch to the mountain men.
That win was the Cowboys' ninth of the year and leaves them in seventh place on the ladder heading into the last nine games of the regular season.
The luckless Raiders have lost three straight and have dropped three of seven games at home this year, including to Brisbane last weekend.
A fortress last year, GIO Stadium has been a happy hunting ground for teams in 2017, with the Cowboys chasing their fourth win away from home.
The post-Thurston part of the season has thrown up some selection dilemmas for Cowboys head coach Paul Green, particularly in the halves.
Former Cowboys Under-20s star Kyle Laybutt played just his second NRL game versus the Panthers last weekend, where he combined with Michael Morgan in the chief playmaking roles.
Laybutt was solid, but he didn’t get as involved as he did in his debut against the Storm the week before.
This week, Green has opted for new recruit Te Maire Martin in the No.6 jersey while Morgan will play halfback.
Martin was a mid-season transfer from the Panthers, the 21-year-old former Junior Kiwi with 13 NRL games under his belt over two seasons with Penrith.
Green said this week that Martin would be given his chance in the halves alongside Morgan, with Laybutt definitely regarded as NRL-quality, and that time back in the Queensland Cup after playing NRL was part of a young player’s learning and development.
Martin will be the sixth player to make his Cowboys debut this season, joining Ben Hampton, Shaun Fensom, Gideon Gela-Mosby, Corey Jensen and Laybutt.
SPEAKING OF SHAUN
The hard-working interchange forward will play his 150th game in the NRL this Saturday, the bulk of those for the team he will face on Saturday.
Fensom’s eight seasons at the Raiders netted 138 games where he built a reputation as a tireless back-rower.
He has been impressive for his new club this season, adding impact off the bench in attack and defence, with Green rotating him through when John Asiata, Jason Taumalolo and Scott Bolton get through their first stints.
REST ON HORIZON
Notwithstanding the Cowboys players expected to report for State of Origin III duty on Monday, the team will enjoy their second bye next weekend before they enter the final third of the regular season.
STATS THAT MATTER
- Played: 38 – Raiders 21; Cowboys 17
- Played in Canberra: 19 – Raiders 14; Cowboys 5
- Biggest head-to-head wins: Raiders won 66-10 in 1996; Cowboys won 40-18 in 2012
- Last 8 games: Cowboys 5; Raiders 3
- Points for in 2017: Raiders 336; Cowboys 301
- Points against in 2017: Raiders 300; Cowboys 271
- Tries scored: Raiders 59; Cowboys 49
- Tries conceded: Raiders 52; Cowboys 46
- Average points scored: Raiders 22; Cowboys 20
- Average metres gained per match: Raiders 1527; Cowboys 1621
- Handling errors: Raiders 4; Cowboys 3
- Tackles made: Raiders 295; Cowboys 300