We have a genuine high stakes battle on Thursday as the Canterbury Bulldogs host the North Queensland Cowboys in a game which could seal the Bulldogs a top four position and a coveted double chance.
In fact, the worst-case scenario could see the Bulldogs needing a win against the rejuvenated Rabbitohs in Round 26 to avoid dropping to seventh behind the Panthers and losing the right to a home final.
With such high stakes, Bulldogs fans could be very nervous given their form which is best described as scratchy. Last week, they lost on Thursday night to the Broncos, but the three previous rounds which they won were hardly comforting.
The team narrowly edged the Sea Eagles in extra time in Round 23, required a late surge against the hapless Knights in Round 22, and managed only 13 points against a Dragons team missing Josh Dugan in Round 21.
Before that was the humiliating 36-0 drubbing the team copped against this very same Cowboys team, albeit in Townsville.
The good news for the Bulldogs though is that the Cowboys are not travelling particularly well either. Since their big win over the Dogs in Round 20 the team succumbed to three consecutive losses against the Storm, Tigers and Roosters, dropping them from third to fifth on the ladder.
Round 24 saw a welcome return to form with a comprehensive win over the Warriors in which the team displayed the sort of forward pack dominance that propelled the side to its maiden premiership in 2015 but which had been lacking recently.
Not since the round 20 match against Canterbury had the side run all over a team in the way they did against the Warriors and fans will be hoping that continues against a Bulldogs side that will be missing a key front row contributor.
|Will Hopoate||Fullback||Lachlan Coote|
|Brett Morris||Left winger||Antonio Winterstein|
|Josh Morris||Left centre||Kane Linnett|
|Curtis Rona||Right centre||Justin O’Neill|
|Sam Perrett||Right winger||Kyle Feldt|
|Moses Mbye||Left half||Johnathan Thurston|
|Josh Reynolds||Right half||Michael Morgan|
|James Graham||Prop||Matt Scott|
|Michael Lichaa||Hooker||Ray Thompson|
|Aidan Tolman||Prop||James Tamou|
|Greg Eastwood||Left second row||Gavin Cooper|
|Josh Jackson||Right second row||Ethan Lowe|
|David Klemmer||Lock||Jason Taumalolo|
|Raymond Faitala-Mariner||Interchange||Rory Kostjaysn|
|Danny Fualolo||Interchange||Coen Hess|
|Tony Williams||Interchange||Scott Bolton|
|Tim Browne||Interchange||Patrick Kaufusi|
Starting with the home side and there is only one change to report, but it’s a big one (you see what I did there?) with the man they call Dogzilla forced out through suspension.
Whatever you think of Sam Kasiano’s actions to Corey Parker’s jaw, his absence will be a serious challenge for the Bulldogs as he adds a degree of unpredictability and power to a pack that can become a little one-dimensional at times.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys have made a number of changes, including positional switches to report.
Firstly and perhaps most importantly Matt Scott returns from injury and is injected immediately into the front row.
The return of the Origin and Test front rower means that Scott Bolton returns to the bench where he is joined by fellow forwards Patrick Kaufusi and Coen Hess which is interesting for two reasons.
Firstly it marks a continued absence for two of the Cowboys usual middle unit deputies John Asiata and Ben Hannant. Those players, along with Bolton have been part of a very regimented middle unit rotation for the best part of two years.
Secondly, the inclusion of Hess also meant a change of strategy for Coach Paul Green against the Warriors. With Hess best suited to an edge backrow position Green opted to move Ethan Lowe to the middle unit late in the first half when Hess came on.
Lowe then actually left the field after 61 minutes and did not return. This was almost the first time Lowe had left the field for the Cowboys all season after playing all but 41 minutes of a possible 2,251.
Meanwhile, at dummy half Ray Thompson has been named to start after coming off the bench in the role last weekend. However don’t be too surprised if Paul Green pulls the switch and Rory Kostjaysn is again drafted in to start.
What to watch for
While the win against the Warriors was timely, it was the strong contribution of the three halves which was as encouraging as the result was.
I say three halves because I’m including Lachlan Coote as a defacto half given his huge role in the team’s playmaking structure. It’s a role that has been a fundamental driver of the team’s success since he debuted for the club in the early rounds of 2015.
While it is commonly accepted that a lot of fullbacks take on the role of an additional playmaker, few do it to the extent that Coote has throughout the premiership run last season and for much of this season.
For instance Coote regularly touches the ball 40 or 50 times a game but runs the ball on only 10-15 of those.
This of course means that Coote passes (or kicks) on far more touches than most other fullbacks which gives him more opportunities to create, recording 14 try assists and 16 line break assists in 2015, an amazing stat for a player who is alongside a maestro like Johnathan Thurston.
For comparison players like James Tedesco and Josh Dugan, who are more doers than enablers, run the ball on around 50 per cent or more of their touches, although Tedesco has also recorded plenty of try assists over the last two seasons.
Dugan not so much.
This enormous contribution from their fullback is a key reason, along with the best starting trio of middle unit forwards in the game, that North Queensland have enjoyed so much success over the bulk of 2015 and 2016.
However, in recent weeks all three halves have been somewhat down on form with only three try assists and three line break assists combined over the three weeks leading into the Warriors clash.
Even when we account for the fact that Thurston missed one of those games it is a poor return from a unit that had produced more like two try assists and two line break assists per game in 2015.
On Saturday night though, some of the fluidity finally returned to the Cowboys with the trio accounting for three try assists and two line break assists and while again none of those belonged to Coote he also chimed in effectively with eight kicks for 290m gain.
The following series of images shows exactly how important a well functioning trio of playmakers is for the Cowboys.
In this first image we see the destroyer of worlds Jason Taumalolo passing back to Thurston who has Coote on his outside and Morgan trailing on his inside shoulder.
As we spin on we can see that Thurston has almost immediately turned back inside to hand the ball off to Morgan but the Warriors defenders are well and truly engaged with Thurston himself and Coote beyond him.
Our final image shows the result of that undue focus on Thurston and Coote with Morgan having just received the ball and ready to power into a sizeable gap between Warriors players and beyond to the tryline.
This is a well orchestrated and well executed play and it speaks of two things. Firstly, for it to work as well as it does the Warriors defenders have to be convinced that not only is Thurston a run threat himself but moreover that the man outside him is also a threat.
Secondly it also requires exquisite timing from all three Cowboys players to establish this beautiful attacking alignment and the momentum to carry it through to success.
This is far from the slickest play the Cowboys have executed this season but that’s exactly the point in some respects.
That’s because it’s a sweeter play than they managed for the three previous games and if indeed this trio is once again beginning to find their groove then not only do the Bulldogs need to watch out but so should every other contender.
First try scorer – Gavin Cooper
There’s not a lot of imagination in this selection. The simple logic is that Gavin Cooper is a very, very large human being and he will be running off the outside shoulder of Johnathan Thurston – a player who is both re-discovering top form and is also a maestro of the short ball to an outside in runner.
Prediction – Cowboys
This is such a hard game to predict with many factors running contrary to each other.
The Bulldogs have won three of the last four but lost their most recent game.
The Cowboys have lost three of four but won their most recent game.
Canterbury will be without a key forward, but the Cowboys will be on the road. The Dogs get to play at their spiritual home in Belmore but they have lost two in a row there.
Up and down, back and forth. Where does that leave us?
I will trust in the return to form of the Cowboys halves. After several weeks of reacquainting themselves after Origin and injuries made it hard for them all to play well at the same time they finally seem to be getting back on the same page.
But I’m by no means confident with that pick. This is an intensely close game with plenty at stake. Hopefully it lives up to that billing and we get an exciting close game.
Season Record – 17 – 5
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