Cowboys v Roosters
7.30pm Saturday, Allianz Stadium
Well, it’s Week 3 of the 2017 NRL Telstra Premiership Finals Series and the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys are still in there, still in the fight, living and breathing their finals mantra like never before.
Following gutsy wins over Cronulla and the Eels, the eighth-ranked Cowboys find themselves still in the premiership race with the top three-ranked teams in the comp: Melbourne Storm, Saturday’s opponent the Sydney Roosters and the Brisbane Broncos.
With a consistent roster in recent weeks, the in-form Cowboys will again go into this match as underdogs, but full of confidence and self-belief as they tackle a Roosters side refreshed after a week off following a close Week 1 Finals win over the Broncos.
It was on Friday 10 March at Suncorp Stadium that the North Queensland Cowboys’ 2017 NRL campaign dramatically shifted gear.
Amid the euphoria of a pulsating 21-20 win – marking back-to-back victories in golden-point extra-time to start their season – news emerged that tireless prop Matt Scott had succumbed to a serious knee injury.
In the days that followed, Scott and the club’s worst fears were confirmed – the 233-game one-club veteran had torn his ACL.
Devastating not only on a personal level for the player, but the club was hit hard given they hadn’t replaced outgoing big man James Tamou (Penrith) while Ben Hannant had retired with ongoing knee issues after earlier agreeing to stay an extra year at the club.
So head coach Paul Green suddenly had a dearth of front-rowers, the shortfall mitigated somewhat by the late pre-season recruitment of rugged Canberra Raider Shaun Fensom.
Still, the team battled on brilliantly – and would be further hit by a season-ending injury to another of its stars in Johnathan Thurston (shoulder) – to find themselves one game from a second grand final appearance in three years.
And on the Tuesday leading into Saturday’s preliminary finals against the Sydney Roosters, Green dropped a bombshell by naming Scott in his extended squad for this weekend’s game.
While the big Central Queenslander is unlikely to suit up against Trent Robinson’s men – Green said he would only play if a player in the current 17 withdrew with injury – the news is a huge nod to Scott’s determination during rehab that he has even put himself in the finals selection conversation.
Needless to say, Scott's selection in the 21-man squad was big news across the NRL world this week, with all eyes on the big fella at the team’s main training session on Wednesday.
Scott is essentially injury cover for a couple of the team’s core forwards.
Interchange behemoth Coen Hess twice hurt his knee in last weekend’s Week 2 Finals win over the Eels, with the player himself confident he’ll be right to take on the Chooks.
It’s a slight medial ligament injury, similar to the one Te Maire Martin and Shaun Fensom had earlier this year.
Prop John Asiata (broken hand) will continue to be monitored but got through the Eels match fine and even scored his first NRL try in his 76th premiership game.
Hot on the heels of his good friend and centre partner Kane Linnett marking 150 games for the Cowboys in last weekend’s Eels triumph, left-side winger Antonio Winterstein is due to reach the milestone against the Roosters on Saturday.
The tough-as-nails 29-year-old has had a tough season on the injury front – working through hamstring and rib injuries plus a broken arm – and was actually in line to pass Linnett at season’s start.
But the Brisbane junior has played 17 games this year, while Linnett is one of five Cowboys to feature in every game in 2017.
Green last week paired Justin O’Neill – in his comeback game from a dislocated elbow – with Winterstein on the left edge, while Linnett and winger Kyle Feldt combined on the right, with that combo unlocking the Eels’ defence with an open side raid leading to a Feldt try.
O’Neill played most of his 67 games at the Storm at left centre but in his past three seasons at the Cowboys has formed a lethal partnership with Feldt on the right.
It should be interesting to see what Green opts to do on Saturday, with defensive maestro Linnett possibly staying on the right to mark dangerous Roosters threat Latrell Mitchell, who scored a lethal long-range solo try the last time the sides met, in Round 21.
The Roosters – one of the most successful teams in the NRL era – have the head-to-head lead over the Cowboys 25 wins to 10, a figure that includes an 11-3 advantage at Allianz Stadium.
The Roosters have also won four of the past matches between the sides and five of the past eight.
The teams met just once in 2017, with the Roosters edging the Cowboys 22-16 in Round 21.