The points-hungry North Queensland Toyota Cowboys under-20s team will look to continue their strong surge towards the National Youth Competition finals when they host the Melbourne Storm this afternoon.
Having posted 104 points in their past two games with wins over the Warriors (70-10) and the Roosters (34-30), Aaron Payne’s young charges are full of confidence and primed for a top-four finish to the regular season.
The team’s recent wins formed a strong response to a mini-slump for the team as they struggled on the road with out-of-character losses to the Raiders (Round 17, 36-14) and the Rabbitohs (Round 19, 32-10) in successive matches.
WHERE THE COMBATANTS SIT
The Cowboys currently sit in fourth place on the NYC ladder with 11 wins and eight losses to date.
They are on 26 competition points, two wins adrift of Penrith and St George-Illawarra (both 30 points) and well behind runaway competition leaders Cronulla (37), who have dropped just two games this year.
While a top-two spot is not out of the realms of possibility, of greater import would be finishing in the top four, as that gives teams a double chance in the finals – the young Cowboys have plenty of work to do on that front.
Also on 26 points – but on lower ladder positions due to inferior points differentials – are Parramatta and Manly.
It is widely regarded that 28 points will book a spot in the finals, but North Queensland will want to finish as high as possible, and have plenty of games to work with as we enter Round 22 of 26.
The Cowboys’ opponents this weekend are all but out of finals contention – currently sitting 12th on the ladder with 20 points from eight wins and 11 losses – and would need to win most, if not all, of their remaining games while relying on other favourable results for the remaining five rounds.
But any team that’s part of the Storm system cannot be taken lightly.
Their under-20s team is based on the Sunshine Coast and the young lads work closely week-in, week-out with the club’s Queensland Cup feeder team the Falcons, who are currently running second in that highly-regarded competition.
Some injuries aside, the Cowboys have had a fairly stable 17 in recent weeks as crafty halves Jake Clifford and captain Mitch Dunn continue to lead the side around the park.
The recent return of strike centre Enari Tuala has been an added boost for coach Payne, with the future NRL squad member in sparkling form since returning to the field after a lengthy injury layoff (broken jaw).
The team has also benefitted from the sustained presence of current NRL squad member Kalyn Ponga at fullback, the gun teenager providing attacking and playmaking threats on both sides of the field.
Payne was impressed with his forwards last start against the Roosters, with Kaleb Fuimaono in particular having one of his stronger games for the year.
Another threat in attack is speedy centre Mick Carroll, whose raw pace makes him a try-scoring danger from anywhere on the park.
Where the team has been found wanting in some of their losses this year is some fundamentals which, when accumulated, can really hurt a team across the game.
Giving away yardage penalties and cheating on some fundamental team rules in defence – plus effort areas across the park – have been problems in the past.
Payne would be keen to see these elements eliminated from play this round given the team is playing with confidence but mindful of complacency.
Darwin product and first-choice hooker Calum Gahan has been as solid as a rock this season after being in and out of the side last year.
With a second straight serious knee injury to fellow No.9 Reuben Cotter at the start of the season, Gahan has had a mortgage on the position and his trademark strong surges out of dummy-half have been an eye-catching feature of the team’s attack in 2017.
The game at 1300SMILES Stadium kicks off at 5.30pm today.