THE BIG MATCH North Queensland v Manly Tonight, Dairy Farmers Stadium, 7.30pm
What the Cowboys say They’re looking for a springboard effect. "If we can get the two points, hopefully we can go right into the top eight and stay there," hooker Aaron Payne said.
What the Sea Eagles say Coach Des Hasler is looking for his defence to clam up on Johnathan Thurston and the Cowboys’ other danger men. "Thurston is a constant threat," he said. "So’s Matty Bowen and so’s young [Aaron] Payne. They tend to play around the ruck, so obviously we need to be on our guard against them."
What Prichard says Thrashing the Sharks in Adelaide is not a guarantee the Cowboys are back. It’s a start, but a game like this is likely to tell us much more about how they’re going. The Sea Eagles, meanwhile, after going a long way towards getting their act together following Brett Stewart’s return, now have to go back to playing without him again. They’re going to suffer for that, but probably not as badly as they did earlier in the season, when they had to cope with some big off-field distractions as well. Manly know Stewart is out for up to three months injured, so the equation for them is simple: they have to win enough games in the meantime to remain a chance of making the finals. They should be able to get on with that reasonably well. This is likely to be a close contest, and I think their forwards will accept the challenge, muscle up and lead the way to victory.
For the Sea Eagles to win They can’t hope to score the sort of tries they do when Brett Stewart is in the side, because none of their other players can do the freakish things he does. They scored 14.5 points per game without him in the first four rounds, and 23.5 with him in the next two rounds. So they have to be prepared to grind and commit to a big defensive effort. The Sea Eagles are certainly capable of winning that way, as long as they are patient and pick the right times to free up the ball in attack. Too many turnovers against a Cowboys team that has several match-winners would kill them.
For the Cowboys to win They have to try to ignore the fact Brett Stewart is out – and Manly’s inability to win without him in the first four rounds – and treat the Sea Eagles as the defending premiers. Then they have to be more effective through the forwards than they have been this season, because that is where Manly will come at them. The Cowboys have a trio of back-line aces in Thurston, Bowen and Willie Tonga. If the forwards create space for them, they can cut loose.
The X-factor Cowboys lock Luke O’Donnell wasn’t at his best in the first five rounds, but he returned to form in last weekend’s win over the Sharks. Now he goes home to play against a Manly team that includes a couple of back-rowers with whom he will be competing for places in representative teams. It’s the sort of challenge O’Donnell thrives on, so don’t be surprised if he comes up with a big play.
What the bookies say TAB Sportsbet has the Cowboys as slight favourites, at $1.60, thanks to the home-ground advantage. The Sea Eagles are being kept safe, at $2.30.
The late mail No late withdrawals are anticipated.
The teams Nth Queensland: M Bowen, B Farrar, A Graham, W Tonga, S Hegarty, T Burns, J Thurston (c), S Tronc, A Payne, A Kaufusi, S Southern, S Bolton, L O’Donnell. Bench: B Harris, S Rapira, M Scott, C Webb, J Williams, J Tamou. Manly: M Robertson, D Williams, J Lyon, S Matai, M Bani, C Bailey, M Orford (c), B Kite, M Ballin, J Perry, A Watmough, G Hall, G Stewart. Bench: H L’Estrange, J King, A Cuthbertson, S Rodney.