Cowboys v Eels semi-final
7.40pm Saturday, ANZ Stadium
A contest between a team in form versus a team in high spirits, buoyant on courage and resilience, underpins the narrative heading into Week 2 of the National Rugby League Finals.
Here’s our take leading into Saturday night’s ANZ Stadium blockbuster!
HIGHS AND LOWS
Saturday’s do-or-die affair against the Eels will be the third time this year the sides would have met, and for the Cowboys, these Parramatta clashes have represented the best and the worst of the team in 2017.
It was in Round 9 in Townsville that the visiting Eels towelled the Cowboys up 26-6 in the club’s second-heaviest defeat of the season.
In a rare dark night at 1300SMILES Stadium – the club’s Under-20s had been crushed 60-12 earlier in the evening – the Cowboys had no answers for Parramatta’s power through the middle and slickness on the edges as classy utility Clint Gutherson led the northern raid with two tries and five goals.
It was the Cowboys’ third loss in four games as the team was getting used to life without their talismanic skipper Johnathan Thurston, who at this stage was into his third week on the sidelines with a calf injury.
As history would show, Thurston would only play one more club game for the year, and that would come six weeks later in Round 14 against the Eels, who had taken their home game to the Top End.
Since that Round 9 result, Thurston’s return game of footy was the May Test match for Australia against the Kiwis.
He hurt his shoulder playing for the ‘Roos and would miss three more club games plus the first State of Origin match for Queensland.
In a triumphant return for his club side at Darwin’s TIO Stadium, Thurston orchestrated a stunning win for the “visitors”, who turned a 14-0 half-time lead into a 32-6 victory, the team’s biggest win of the season representing a 46-point turnaround between the two matches.
Thurston scored a try and set up three others in a masterful return to the field, which continued on to the Origin arena before the veteran playmaker’s horror injury run in 2017 continued with a season-ending shoulder injury.
Now, in Round 3 of this seesawing battle between the Cowboys and the Eels, the visiting North Queenslanders come up against an in-form Eels side who narrowly lost to raging premiership favourites the Melbourne Storm in Week 1 of the finals.
THE LONGER GAME
While honours are shared in 2017, the Eels have the overall wood – but only just - on the Cowboys.
The teams have clashed 37 times since North Queensland entered the top-flight comp in 1995, with Parramatta winning 19, the Cowboys 17 and one match drawn.
The teams have only clashed once at ANZ Stadium, with the Cowboys emerging victors on that occasion.
In the past eight clashes between the sides, the Cowboys hold a 5-3 edge, while the Eels were responsible for one of the Cowboys’ heaviest ever defeats – a 62-0 triumph in 2001 at Parramatta Stadium.
NQ’s biggest win over the Eels came in their glorious 2015 premiership year with a 46-4 belting at 1300SMILES Stadium.
Prior to their 18-16 Week 1 finals loss to the Storm, the fired-up Eels had won nine of their previous 10 games in a barnstorming second half of the season, which propelled them to a fourth-placed finish and a double chance in the finals.
The Cowboys sneaked into the finals in eighth place, having lost five of their final six regular-season matches.
But last weekend’s glorious 15-14 Week 1 Finals win over defending premiers Cronulla will buoy a side who have shown tremendous courage and resilience all year.
While the Cowboys are without co-captains Thurston and Matt Scott, the Eels are sans the influential Gutherson, out for the season with a knee injury.
But the wily utility has been out of a while, and the Eels have flourished under the halves pairing of Corey Norman and Mitch Moses, a mid-season recruit from Wests Tigers.
The pair run the Eels around the park with poise and precision, opening up opportunities for dangerous left-edge speed men Michael Jennings and Semi Radradra, the pair having scored a combined 30 tries this year.
This accounts for just under half of the total tries scored this year by the 17 players named to play in Saturday’s match.
In the middle, the Eels will be led by inspirational skipper Tim Mannah, the tireless veteran one of the most consistent props in the comp.
He’s ably supported by strong-running firebrand Nathan Brown and dangerous back-rowers Manu Ma’u and Tepai Moeroa, while unpredictable interchange forward Kenny Edwards is sure to get under opposition skin with his niggling tactics.
The Cowboys’ engine room has found great consistency – both in form and personnel in recent weeks as Scott Bolton and Jason Taumalolo lead the way, with Coen Hess, Shaun Fensom, Corey Jensen and John Asiata having all performed their roles admirably in the past month.
Head coach Paul Green will again be looking for an epic second stint from Taumalolo, who was sublime at the back end against the Sharks last week, the rampaging young forward again punching out 200m-plus, many of those post-contact.
Both teams are coming off punishing Week 1 finals matches, with the Eels slightly advantaged with an extra day’s recovery.
But they are coming off a loss and the Cowboys off a win, so how that’s handled mentally by both teams could be important in the preparation.
There will likely be more points in this game, with less of a grind through the middle than was the case in both teams' Week 1 matches, with scores of 18-16 and 15-14.
If try-scoring machine Radradra is kept quiet, that could have a huge bearing on the match, while the Cowboys need to find more try-scoring opportunities than they created last weekend.
The stakes are high and the reward for the victors is significant … a Week 3 grand final qualifier versus the Roosters.