The Origin period is over, and after a measured re-introduction to club football with a one-sided Dragons vs Titans game, we return to elite action with a top four battle between the North Queensland Cowboys and Canterbury Bulldogs in Round 20.
There is plenty to play for with both teams locked on 24 points and only a superior for and against for the Cowboys seeing them in third ahead of the Dogs.
While the winner will of course move two points clear in outright third, the loser can potentially fall behind the Raiders who, with a win at home against the Warriors could move into the all-important fourth spot and the double chance that provides in the finals.
Of course, there is a long way to go with nearly a third of the season remaining, however it is by beating direct rivals that a team establishes their credibility as title contenders.
That the home team were last-start losers is essentially irrelevant given the players the Cowboys were missing in Round 18.
With five players on Origin duty, plus Michael Morgan missing through injury the team was always going to struggle against a Raiders team on the rise.
While the Cowboys tried hard with young players Jake Granville and Coen Hess playing well it wasn’t enough, especially with a surprisingly ineffective match from Lachlan Coote who was unable to impose himself.
The Cowboys still sit third though and are getting all absent players back this week. While they haven’t been able to replicate their 2015 performance during the representative period where they won seven of eight games, they have stayed in touch with the leaders winning four from eight.
For the Bulldogs meanwhile, it has been a very productive representative period with six wins. More importantly, they are on a four-game winning streak.
While Canterbury were favoured in three of those against the Dragons, Tigers and Roosters it is those sorts of Origin period games against supposed lesser lights than can easily trip up a contender.
Of course, the other game in that four-game winning streak, was the epic beat-down of the Broncos in Brisbane. It was a performance that perhaps established the team was moving from the pretender column to the contender column.
|Lachlan Coote||Fullback||Will Hopoate|
|Javid Bowen||Left winger||Brett Morris|
|Justin O’Neill||Left centre||Josh Morris|
|Kane Linnett||Right centre||Curtis Rona|
|Antonio Winterstein||Right winger||Sam Perrett|
|Johnathan Thurston||Left half||Moses Mbye|
|Michael Morgan||Right half||Josh Reynolds|
|Matt Scott||Prop||James Graham|
|Jake Granville||Hooker||Michael Lichaa|
|James Tamou||Prop||Aidan Tolman|
|Gavin Cooper||Left second row||Greg Eastwood|
|Ethan Lowe||Right second row||Josh Jackson|
|Rory Kostjasyn||Interchange||Sam Kasiano|
|John Asiata||Interchange||Tony Williams|
|Scott Bolton||Interchange||Tim Browne|
|Ben Hannant||Interchange||Raymond Faitala-Mariner|
No team will be happier to see the end of the representative period then North Queensland. With all five Origin players available, plus Michael Morgan returning from injury the team is almost back to the 17 that secured the premiership in 2015 and was the mainstay selection through the opening third of this season.
The only remaining omission from that line-up is winger Kyle Feldt who is unavailable this week through suspension with Javid Bowen the replacement.
For the Bulldogs, there is also a sense of order returning. In saying that, the team still looks distinctly different to the first choice side from the early part of the season.
Tony Williams, who began the year on the left edge has forced his way back onto the bench after a stint in reserve grade.
Meanwhile, the return of Brett Morris and the long-term injury to the cursed Chase Stanley has seen a reshuffle from the early rounds with Curtis Rona moving off the left wing where he scored a gazillion tires and into the centres with Morris on the edge.
What to watch for
There is an old saying common to both rugby codes that the forwards determine who wins a match and the backs just decide by how much. If that truism is accurate then we should see a cracking contest tonight as this game sees a match-up of remarkable pair forward packs.
There is little doubt that these two teams possess the two strongest packs in the competition. Only the Sharks, Broncos and Raiders are able to make a serious case as their equals. It’s no coincidence that those are also three of the other top six teams in the competition.
One can make a case that the Raiders have the most depth with players of the quality of Sia Soliola and Paul Vaughan coming off the bench and the Sharks have probably the strongest pair of edge back rowers in the competition with Luke Lewis and Wade Graham.
But it is hard to go past the middle units of these two teams tonight as the (and by middle unit I mean the two starting props, the starting lock and whoever else is subbed into the game in those roles during the 80 minutes).
But while our focus will be on the middle units we should pause briefly to talk about the extraordinary quality also on display from the four-second rowers as well.
On one side of the field we should see the power running, but deft passing of Greg Eastwood aligned against Ethan Lowe, a player who somehow still remains underrated despite starting every game for a premiership team in 2015.
Then on the other edge we will see an Origin battle renewed with tireless Bulldog and Blues defender Josh Jackson once again confronted with the 197cm, 108kg giant that is Gavin Cooper. With differing sizes and styles on either side these match-ups should be fascinating to watch.
The really story is still in the middle unit though where we have two very equally effective groups of players that are used in significantly different fashion to achieve similar outcomes.
The Cowboys begin each game with the two Australian front row forwards Matt Scott and James Tamou along with the ‘destroyer of worlds’ Jason Taumalolo. This is a unit that averages a combined 429 metres per game, 69 tackles and uses up 138 of the available 240 minutes for those three positions.
Splitting the remaining 100 or so minutes in the middle unit are veterans Ben Hannant and Scott Bolton along with John Asiata and Rory Kostjasyn who also plays some minutes as a running forward along with his role as backup dummy half.
It is a formidable group of players and they are a huge part of the reason the Cowboys were finally able to break through for their maiden premiership last season. Even players as good as Thurston, Morgan and Coote need a platform on which to operate.
While the Cowboys middle unit has been rock solid for the best part of the last 18 months, the Bulldogs have rotated through a variety of combinations. James Graham and Aidan Tolman generally start in the front row when fit.
While that much is largely consistent, the lock spot has rotated through several players including Greg Eastwood, Sam Kasiano, Tim Browne and this week’s starter David Klemmer.
Klemmer it seems has solidified his hold on the job for the time being as Eastwood, who began the season as the preferred lock, has now moved to the left where he has been very effective.
Sam Kasiano has been tried in the role but Coach Des Hasler seems to feel that he gets more out of the big man as an impact player off the bench. As for Tim Browne he is better suited to a bench role alongside players like Raymond Faitala-Mariner, Danny Fualolo and Adam Elliott.
But where this story starts to get really interesting is when we start to compare the production of the various players and the way in which they are used.
Despite a well-deserved reputation and some impressive statistics the Cowboys starting unit is actually a little overshadowed in terms of raw numbers by the Canterbury starting trio.
Between them the three Canterbury middle unit players average considerably more metres than the Cowboys with a little under 490m per game (compared with the Cowboys 429m), with James Graham averaging a tick under 180m per game on his own.
The following chart shows very clearly the advantage that the Bulldogs forwards have.
You can see here quite clearly that Graham and Klemmer are noticeably ahead of all three Cowboys players and even Tolman is ahead of both Tamou and Scott.
But, there’s more to the story than raw numbers and the obvious place to start adding context is the minutes per game which demonstrates, at least in part, why the Bulldogs players are able to rack up such prodigious numbers.
We can see here that the three Bulldogs players all play significantly more minutes than their Cowboys counterparts. Indeed Graham and Tolman play among the most minutes for any front row forward in the game with Tolman recently playing a full 80-minute game.
Naturally, as minutes increase the opportunity to make more runs for more metres, and more tackles increases. This gives Canterbury a leg up in accumulating those raw metre numbers. Although it goes without saying that playing more minutes requires a high level of fitness and it shouldn’t be understated how impressive those performances are.
However this next chart shows that the metres, runs minutes and tackles for each player are all largely proportional with more minutes generally leading to more of each of the other statistics
One final chart shows us the minutes contribution of the primary backup middle unit players on each team’s bench. The caveat on this chart is of course that its incomplete in that it only shows the most prominent bench middles and doesn’t account for spot starting roles for players like Kasiano, Browne and Hannant.
But it still adds to our overall narrative given that it shows pretty clearly that Paul Green offers a lot more minutes to his bench players than Des Hasler.
We can see here Hannant and Bolton play the most minutes with even Asiata not far short of Browne and Kasiano while players like Fualolo and Elliott get very little time on the field.
Recent additions to the bench rotation for the Bulldogs Raymond Faitala-Mariner and Tony Williams are not shown because it is tough to isolate their middle unit minutes. However it is fair to say that neither spends enough time in the middle to affect this.
All of this matters because the minutes distribution reflects the fact that the two teams pursue different strategies in rotating through their middle unit players and those differing strategies can create periods in the game that will be particularly interesting to observe.
Starting with the Cowboys’ strategy and we can see from the minutes distribution that Paul Green is comfortable playing his two main middle unit back ups, Hannant and Bolton, for relatively long stints. What the minutes doesn’t show us is the way they are used.
In almost every game this season the Cowboys have essentially divided the game into thirds for the purposes of managing their middle unit.
The three starting players each play the first 20-25 minutes with Taumalolo typically the first player to leave the field. Bolton and Hannant, along with support from Asiata and some forward minutes from Kostjasyn, then play the middle third of the game before the big guns return to close the match sometime around the 60th minute.
The Bulldogs however use a very different approach with not only far more minutes from their starters but also much longer first stints and staggered replacements. Indeed in most games one of the identical starting props Graham and Tolman will play the entire first half before taking a rest at about the 50th minute and returning at the death.
Even the starter who doesn’t play the entire first half will often play upwards of 30-32 minutes before taking a spell. That player then returns not long after the other starter exits.
Meanwhile, the starting lock generally leaves at around the 25-minute mark and is often replaced with Kasiano, giving the man they call Dogzilla two 15-minute stints either side of halftime and occasionally allowing him to be subbed off only to return for the final minutes.
These are distinctly different approaches and they will provide a few periods of the game in which there will be potential mismatches between the calibre of players on the field.
For instance, in the mid to latter stages of the first half it is likely that the Bulldogs will have Kasiano, Graham and Tolman all on the field matched against the entire second string unit of the Cowboys.
But then later in the game between the 50th and 70th minute there is likely to be a period where the Cowboys tsunami of Test forwards all come back off the bench and face the last legs of the Canterbury replacements thereby giving them a chance to overwhelm the Dogs.
When arguably the two best forward packs meet it is always interesting but this should be especially interesting given the different strategies.
First try scorer – Brett Morris
After all that discussion about forwards it may seem a little strange to select a back as first try scorer but that’s usually the way it goes – forwards do all the work and backs score all the tries.
Look for Morris to capitalise on the inexperience of Javid Bowen who might not be entirely prepared for the raw speed of the former NSW winger.
Prediction – Cowboys
It is one of those curiosities of the NRL draw that this is the first meeting between these two sides this season. Indeed, this is the first meeting between the two teams since Round 9 2015, in a game in which neither Jason Taumalolo or James Graham played.
The teams also met only once during the 2014 season thereby robbing fans of opportunities to see these two outstanding packs battle it out.
That lack of context makes it a little harder to predict how this will unfold as does the major line-up upheaval that the Cowboys have endured over the last few games.
However, as impressive as the Bulldogs forwards have been, their backs, and especially their halves, have been less convincing in 2016 (and, well, for the best part of a decade really).
If the adage about forwards winning the game were as black and white as all that then the Bulldogs would have won several titles in recent seasons but the reality is that they have often failed to capitalise on their natural advantages in those areas.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have arguably the best halfback of all time along with two other deadly playmakers in Michael Morgan and Lachlan Coote.
The forwards battle tonight should be a sight to behold but the strength of the Cowboys playmaking, and the home ground advantage makes it very difficult to predict anything other than a Cowboys victory.
As I said earlier in the Forecast the Cowboys were not quite as good over the representative period this year as they were last year.
The reality is though that the NRL regular season is divided into three segments – the opening rounds, the representative period and finally there is the run home. The Cowboys were exceptional in the opening rounds and passable in the representative period. What they do now will determine whether they can be the first back-to-back champions of the NRL era.
The real premiership defence starts now for the Cowboys.
You can read the NRL Forecast here every week or check it out along with more great rugby league analysis on Lachlan’s website Back The Ten.
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