It's a tale of two under-performing sides this Saturday night in Townsville as the Cowboys and the Raiders clash, both with just two wins to show for their first 7 weeks of football this season. But that might be where the similarities end...
The Raiders slumped to 4 straight defeats to start the season which caused coach Ricky Stuart to label his players as soft, drop two of his star players to reserve grade (including international forward Josh Papalii) and claim his players should be embarrassed to wear the Canberra jersey. Wow! The outburst appeared to have an almost immediate result, though, as the Raiders easily accounted for the Bulldogs and Eels in consecutive weeks, before falling back into old habits to capitulate against the Rabbitohs in Round 7.
On the other hand, the Cowboys won their first match against the Sharks then went on a losing streak of their own; losing 5 matches before arresting the slide against the Titans in Round 7. After their 4th consecutive loss, coach Paul Green and Johnathan Thurston appeared calm; a huge contrast to the bluster that was Ricky Stuart's press conference a week earlier. They spoke about staying composed, not panicking, 'sticking to their systems'. With players of the calibre of Thurston, Morgan, Scott and Taumalolo in their lineup, they believe they have what it takes to be a key team at the end of the season.
It'll be interesting to see who prevails and moves one step closer to breaking into the Top 8.
1st July 2017 - Cowboys won 31-18
4th March 2017 - Cowboys won 20-16 (Golden Point)
11th July 2016 - Raiders won 26-12
1st August 2015 - Cowboys won 32-24
20th June 2015 - Cowboys won 21-20
As expected, the Cowboys have had the better of recent meetings with the Raiders, such has been their success in recent seasons, while the Raiders have struggled for consistency. The only time the Raiders have beaten the Cowboys in their last 5 matches was in 2016 when they had a strong season and made the Preliminary Final.
In 39 meetings between the two sides, the ledger is more even, with the Raiders winning 21 to the Cowboys 18. In Townsville, the Cowboys have 12 wins from 19 games against the Raiders, with the Raiders not recording a victory at the venue since 2006.
|North Queensland Cowboys||Canberra Raiders|
| 1||Lachlan Coote||Jack Wighton|
|2||Kyle Feldt||Nick Cotric|
|3||Justin O'Neill||Jarrod Croker (c)|
|4||Ben Hampton||Joseph Leilua|
|5||Antonio Winterstein||Jordan Rapana|
|6||Michael Morgan||Blake Austin|
|7||Johnathan Thurston (c)||Aidan Sezer|
|8||Matt Scott (c)||Iosia Soliola|
|9||Jake Granville||Siliva Havili|
|10||Scott Bolton||Junior Paulo|
|11||Gavin Cooper||Joseph Tapine|
|12||Coen Hess||Elliott Whitehead|
|13||Jason Taumalolo||Josh Papalii|
|14||Te Maire Martin||Ata Hingano|
|15||Shaun Fensom||Shannon Boyd|
|16||Corey Jensen||Luke Bateman|
|17||Ethan Lowe||Dunamis Lui|
|18||Francis Molo||Liam Knight|
|19||Jake Clifford||Michael Oldfield|
|20||Enari Tuala||Brad Abbey|
|21||Sam Hoare||Jack Murchie|
The facts that matter
North Queensland Cowboys
Success breeds confidence, so despite having one of the worst starts to a season since 'the bad old days'; the Cowboys and their Fanbase remain confident they will get 2018 back on track. But, after Round 7, the club sits second-last on the competition ladder and 2 wins away from 8th place, so if they will make a run towards the finals, it'd be best to start this Saturday.
Their normally slick attack has been clunky this year, with many observers noting that they appear predictable, while Morgan has been off the pace and playing second fiddle with Thurston returning to the side. They have a backline that lacks in pace and have only averaged 16 points per game this season (and conceding an average of 22 points per game). The surprise solution has been the selection of Ben Hampton at right centre, with O'Neill shifting to left centre, where he played last year's finals series. Hampton has genuine pace and good hands, which forces his opponent to make decisions, something Jarrod Croker will be dreading.
The key for the Cowboys will be forward dominance. With a forward pack comprising Matt Scott, Jason Taumalolo, Gavin Cooper and Coen Hess, this should be a no-brainer, but they simply haven't dominated enough in the middle of the park thus far in 2018. Thurston and Morgan have had timing issues this season, and it hasn't helped that their forwards haven't been getting forward, finding their front and forcing the defence to retreat. Without that momentum, defences have been able to rush the Cowboys' playmakers, exacerbating those timing issues.
The forwards will be aided by the return of Shaun Fensom after his ugly leg injury in the 2017 Grand Final. He'll start from the bench, replacing the injured John Asiata.
As a keen observer of their 2016 season and boarder of their bandwagon, this writer finds the Raiders impossibly frustrating to watch. We know what they're capable when they click, they just click so rarely that they are not a consistent threat to the best sides in the competition.
The Raiders have failed to get consistent performances from their big-name players. Regular halves Austin and Sezer have been rotated between bench spots to featuring in reserve grade, which hasn't allowed the side to settle into a steady attacking formation. Throw in Jack Wighton's trial for alleged crimes coming up in July and Josh Hodgson's long-term injury and it's clear that the spine could not function as desired.
Despite being an excellent edge player, Josh Papalii has been moved to Lock, which might be his coach throwing down a challenge for him to get more involved and improve his match fitness. If Papalii is at his best it would be fair to suggest that the Raiders could put a number of points on the Cowboys, because despite conceding about 22 points per game, their attack has been good, also averaging 22 points scored per game. If Papalii and Paulo can win the battle of the middle, the Raiders will have every chance of winning this match.
Some people have claimed the Cowboys are back in form after beating the Titans, but in honesty the Titans were terrible. But a win is a win, and they will have gained confidence from that; confidence that could prove lethal against a faltering Canberra side that hasn't won away from home this season. Cowboys by 10.
Both teams are desperate for a win, but who will take the two points when the Cowboys host the Raiders? Let us know in the comments below.