Cowboys v Broncos
7.50pm Thursday, 1300SMILES Stadium
Referees: Gerard Sutton, Adam Gee
Broadcast: Channel 9, Fox League, 4TOFM
Recent history has shown that Cowboys-Broncos clashes have been epic affairs worthy of finals footy, but tonight's contest between the fierce Queensland rivals in Townsville takes on a new status against the backdrop of this year’s looming post-season.
After enduring a horror injury run in 2017, the Cowboys find themselves one win away from what would be a remarkable berth in the National Rugby League finals series, with Paul Green’s plucky outfit snapping a four-game losing streak in last-start’s win over Wests Tigers to inch one step closer to extending their season.
“We haven’t really talked about finals so much, rather just putting in a good performance on Thursday night,” said North Queensland Toyota Cowboys fullback Lachlan Coote this week.
“We all know what’s at stake, but for us, we just have to control what we can and the rewards will come after that.”
The equation for the Cowboys (30 points) is simple … simple if the team wins that is. A victory equals a certain place in the top eight, from where they cannot be dislodged over the subsequent seven remaining Round 26 fixtures.
If the result doesn’t go the team’s way, Paul Green and his troops face a nervous weekend watching the rest of the round unfold.
Of particular relevance to the Cowboys’ fortunes will be Saturday night’s Penrith (30 points) versus Manly (30 points) clash, and the penultimate game of the regular season in Sunday’s Canterbury-Bankstown v St George Illawarra (28 points) showdown.
The result of the first game will affect the final top-eight standings, but the Sunday fixture starts and ends with the Dragons, who currently sit outside the top eight but with a superior points differential to all the teams in the mix.
“It’s an exciting time of year, and what better way to define our season than with a final-round clash against the Broncos,” said winger Antonio Winterstein.
“Obviously there’s been some amazing matches between the sides – especially since the 2015 grand final – so here’s hoping we can add to that great history.
“These are the sorts of games you want to be playing at this time of year for sure.”
Winterstein is expected be to passed fit for the clash after successfully getting through the Wests Tigers match last start.
That game was his first back from a fortnight off with a hamstring injury.
The experienced outside back trained lightly at the start of the week as a precautionary measure, but is expected to be ready to rumble come kick-off time.
Thursday’s game is expected to attract 25,000 passionate fans with the club still hopeful of a sellout, which would be a huge coup for the Cowboys given that the Thursday night scheduling doesn’t help their many members and supporters who often travel long distances to see the team play.
“We want to see a sellout and we’d love to hear a constant roar from the crowd as it’s always a buzz to have that amazing support,” said forward Shaun Fensom this week.
“Although I’m new to the club and was 18th man when we played them down there in Round 2, I saw pretty quickly what this rivalry means to the club and the region.”
While the Broncos easily win out in the head-to-head stakes over the course of the teams’ respective history – winning 30 of 47 matches to the Cowboys’ 15, with two draws – the North Queensland-based side has prevailed in five of the past eight encounters.
These have included three one-point wins – the 2015 grand final, a win last year and victory in Round 2 this year – plus a golden-point win in the 2016 finals series.
In that period, the Broncos have also eked out a one-point win of their own (last year at Suncorp Stadium).
The past six matches between the sides have been decided by a total of 14 points.
The Cowboys look set to field the same team on consecutive weeks for just the third time this season, with back-rower Gavin Cooper and halfback Michael Morgan to lead the side, Cooper as official captain and Morgan as chief playmaker.
The Broncos will be without forwards enforcer Korbin Sims, while mercurial half Benji Marshall has been named in the team’s 17, and is some chance of partnering five-eighth Anthony Milford with Kodi Nikorima no certainty of lining up as per program.
RACE IN THREE
Who will finish the regular season as the Cowboys’ leading try-scorer?
After leading the charge all year, young tyro Coen Hess (12 tries) is facing fierce competition from exciting winger Kyle Feldt (11) and Morgan (10).
Feldt posted a double last weekend against Wests Tigers and his tries have come in a glut (11 in 14 games) after he went tryless for the first nine rounds.