The penultimate round of the NRL regular season kicks off with a Bulldog fairytale still burning bright.
Canterbury head far north chasing a fifth straight win as they tackle the Cowboys in Townsville.
It’s the last NRL game at 1300 Smiles Stadium, also known as the Willows Sports Complex. Next year the Cowboys will run out onto the shiny new North Queensland Stadium.
Canterbury have won six of their last eight games to move to 12th in the standings. They are in with a puncher’s chance of pulling off a miracle finals appearance.
To apply some reality though, an awful lot has to go right for the Dogs to extend their season. They need to win this game and their last and rely on a combination of other results that would make Alan Turing throw his hands up in outright despair.
It’s hard to predict how the Cowboys will attack the game, even though it’s the last at the stadium and they’ll be honouring legendary front rower Matt Scott by retiring the number eight jersey.
A lot of local emotion is going to be around, but there’s also the unarguable fact that North Queensland are out of finals contention and have been playing like it for a long time.
From Rounds 10 to 12 the Cowboys won three on the trot, including a win over Parramatta and knocking over Canberra in Canberra. They looked like they might be able to make something of themselves in 2019 but in the ten games since they’ve only managed two more wins.
These teams last met in Round 7 at Homebush when the Bulldogs won 24-12. It’s 6-4 North Queensland’s way in the last ten match-ups, somewhat of a mild surprise given Canterbury’s barren run of late.
The Cowboys got themselves back on the winners list last week with a 24-10 win against finals aspirant Penrith. Forwards Scott Bolton (125 metres and 35 tackles), Jordan McLean (150 and 24) and Jason Taumalolo (152, 36 and a try) were dominant against good opposition.
Perhaps the best Cowboys performance of last week was from 24-year-old prop Francis Molo, who ran for 134 metres and made 23 tackles without a miss in just 35 minutes of on-field time.
North Queensland coach Paul Green liked what he saw so much against the Panthers that he’s running with the same 17 who got the job done. John Asiata is named at five-eighth partnering Michael Morgan, more heartening news for us fans of big man plays and big man athletic displays.
Dean Pay has replaced the suspended Reimis Smith with rookie winger Jayden Okunbor, who had had an up and down debut season. Sometimes Okunbor looks like hoe could dominate the game for years to come, sometimes you need to remind yourself he’s out there at all. That comes with the territory of a young fella and high expectation.
Canterbury’s fourth consecutive win came at the expense of Parramatta, who had top four plans in mind before they were stopped at Bankwest Stadium 12-6.
A feature of this Bulldogs’ streak is that they haven’t really put anyone to the sword. Their attack has struggled all year to put big points on the board, shown up by their reaching or topping 20 points just four times in 22 games. Even the maligned wooden spooner Gold Coast Titans have scored 20 points or more seven times.
The Bulldogs average just 13 points per game, that’s three fewer than the Titans’ average of 16.
Canterbury’s highest score in these four latest wins is 18, a testament to their heart and organisation in defence which has kept them in contests much longer than perhaps they had a right to be.
We all love a sporting miracle and it would certainly be a miracle if the Bulldogs could keep themselves in the conversation for a top eight spot.
But North Queensland are farewelling one of their greatest players in matt Scott and will be keen to give their fans a happy sendoff before they move into North Queensland Stadium next season.
Sorry Doggies fans, but this fairytale won’t end happily ever after.
Cowboys by a nose.
1. Scott Drinkwater, 2. Kyle Feldt, 3. Jordan Kahu, 4. Tom Opcacic, 5. Murray Taulagi, 6. John Asiata, 7. Michael Morgan, 16. Scott Bolton, 9. Jake Granville, 10. Jordan McLean, 11. Gavin Cooper, 12. Shane Wright, 13. Jason Taumalolo
Bench/Reserves: 14. Reuben Cotter, 15. Coen Hess, 17. Francis Molo, 18. Peter Hola, 19. Tom Gilbert, 21. Enari Tuala
1. Dallin Watene-Zelezniak, 2. Nick Meaney, 3. Kerrod Holland, 4. Will Hopoate, 5. Jayden Okunbor, 6. Kieran Foran, 7. Lachlan Lewis, 8. Aiden Tolman, 9. Jeremy Marshall-King, 10. Dylan Napa, 11. Josh Jackson, 12. Corey Harawira-Naera, 13. Adam Elliott
Bench/Reserves: 14. Jack Cogger, 15. Renouf Toomaga, 16. Raymond Faitala-Mariner, 17. Chris Smith, 19. Danny Fualalo, 20. Morgan Harper
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