The Johnathan Thurston farewell tour is almost rounding the final bend, as the Cowboys kick off round 22 - the annual Harvey Norman Women in League Round - against Queensland rivals Brisbane.
JT has just four games left in his illustrious career and the last thing he wants is to wrap it all up with a wooden spoon in his final season. But the Cowboys are in serious danger of finishing dead last unless they can conjure a bit of magic over the closing rounds.
Once again the Broncos left us all speechless when they were out-muscled and out-hustled by the lowly Bulldogs last week. Hard to fathom how they can be so resolute for two weeks against the Sharks and Panthers and follow those performances with the second-rate effort they dished up against the Doggies.
They squandered an opportunity to keep the heat on the top four and also left themselves in a vulnerable position for the final month of the regular season. This is a game the Broncos can't afford to lose but that might be easier said than done if the recent close battles between the two clubs are any guide.
Key match-up: Every game for the Cowboys will about JT for the rest of the season and he will no doubt be relishing his clash with Kodi Nikorima, who finally looks like a permanent first grade playmaker. But let's go with the battle of the No.9s - Jake Granville and Andrew McCullough. Granville was once touted as Queensland's hooker-in-waiting, but Cam Smith retired and McCullough got the nod to take his place. Granville will be busting to get the better of McCullough and give Maroons selectors something to ponder for 2019.
Cowboys v Broncos - Round 22
For the Cowboys to win: Last week the Cowboys charged home down the stretch and might've actually stolen it from the Roosters if the game had gone another five minutes. The key on Thursday is to not wait so long to start playing. Thurston was breathtakingly good in the final 20 minutes, proving there's still a bit of life in the old dog. The Cowboys need to play with the same kind of energy and purpose that almost carried them to a big upset over the Roosters.
For the Broncos to win: If recent history is any guide the Broncos should bounce back with a strong all-round performance after last week's half-hearted effort against the Bulldogs. They've had a tendency to play well after a disappointing loss and coach Wayne Bennett is a master at finding the right words to get his side back to their best. Brisbane need a dominant display from their forwards, while Darius Boyd has to step up after an ordinary game last week.
Cowboys Stat Attack: Some say JT is smart for retiring, others say he should stick around and try to aim for a more fitting farewell than this season's nightmare campaign. Either way, he is still one of the NRL's most dangerous attacking threats. Thurston leads the competition in the line engaged category (106) and is tops in line-break assists (19).
Broncos Stat Attack: Thurston and rookie five-eighth Jake Clifford will have to watch their passes out the back and keep a roving eye on any defenders lurking up in the line, with the Broncos leading the NRL in intercepts (8). The Broncos are also lead the league in kick metres (10,417), with Anthony Milford topping the count amongst all players.
And another thing: Hats off to Sam Thaiday for an outstanding NRL and representative career. Unless he gets sick or injured, the long-serving Broncos forward will chalk up his 300th NRL game on Thursday night. Retiring after this season, the Sydney-born 33-year-old will become the 33rd player to notch 300 games and the 15th to reach the 300-game milestone with one club.
Cowboys: In a late change for the home side, Enari Tuala has been omitted with Gideon Gela-Mosby to start in the centres. Corey Jensen replaces Shaun Fensom (concussion) on the interchange bench. Tuala and Ethan Lowe were the two players left out an hour before game time. Francis Molo and Lachlan Coote were the two players left out 24 hours out from kick-off.
Broncos: In late moves by the Broncos, Patrick Mago will start at prop with Matt Lodge dropping back to the bench. Tevita Pangai jnr has passed a fitness test and will start the match on the interchange bench. Captain Darius Boyd returns to fullback, with Jamayne Isaako moving to the wing. Gehamat Shibasaki debuts at centre. David Fifita starts in the second row. Joe Ofahengaue starts at lock for the suspended Josh McGuire. After George Fai and Troy Dargan were omitted 24 hours out from game time, Jordan Kahu and Sam Tagataese were left out an hour before the match.
Head-to-head: Played 49; Broncos 32 wins, Cowboys 15 wins, 2 draws
Previous result: Broncos won 24-20 at Suncorp Stadium in round 2
Points per game: Cowboys 16.3; Broncos 20.9
Points conceded per game: Cowboys 21.6; Broncos 21.2
Televised: Live on Nine, Fox League
Petero Civoniceva's prediction: The loss of Josh McGuire will hurt the Broncos but with so much to play for I expect them to hit back after last week's shock loss. The Cowboys have had a horror year but the playing group will respond for JT in his last few games and they'll want him to go out on a high. Always epic battles between these two but Brisbane will get the job done.
Tip: Broncos by 6