North Queensland Cowboys vs St George Illawarra Dragons: Lineups, preview and predictions

1300SMILES Stadium, Saturday 21st July, 7:30pm AEST.


Overview

Saturday’s matches for round 19 concludes with the Cowboys returning to home surroundings to host the Dragons. Both teams are coming of rather disappointing losses, although one was substantially heavier than the other. Moreover, the Dragons will be up against the team who participated in the finals last season at their expense. 

The Cowboys return home in Townsville and into this match on the back of a heavy 38-12 loss to the Raiders in quintessentially chilly conditions in the national capital. The final scoreline was rather lopsided, however, it was courtesy of a blitz in the final quarter of the match, where the Raiders would score four unanswered tries to inflate the final margin. Although they have a rather poor record at home this season, they will simply be relieved to be back in the tropics and away from freezing temperatures. 

The Dragons enter this match on the back of a 20-16 loss to a Robbie Farah inspired Tigers outfit at Kogarah. Although the final scoreline was rather close, it actually flattered the Dragons, who were displaying signs of an Origin hangover, and were rather lethargic throughout the match. It was only a couple of converted tries in the final 10 minutes which allowed the scoreline to be much closer than it should have been. This part of the season is one that the Saints have not fared well in, during the years since their premiership season in 2010. 

Although only one of these teams will participate in the finals this season, there is still an abundance at stake. The Cowboys will be desperate to avoid the wooden spoon in the final season of legendary halfback Johnathan Thurston, while the Dragons will want to win to get back to winning ways, in order to consolidate their position in the top four. This match will feature a mouthwatering matchup, featuring the great JT, up against Dragons half Ben Hunt, in what will be a final clash between the Queensland great against the incumbent Maroons playmaker.

Recent meetings 

2017 – Round 7 – St George Illawarra Dragons 28 def. North Queensland Cowboys 22 at WIN Stadium. 

2016 – Round 12 – St George Illawarra Dragons 14 def. North Queensland Cowboys 10 at WIN Stadium. 

2016 – Round 5 – North Queensland Cowboys 36 def. St George Illawarra Dragons 0 at 1300SMILES Stadium. 

2015 – Round 17 – North Queensland Cowboys 18 def. St George Illawarra Dragons 12 at WIN Stadium. 

2014 – Round 17 – St George Illawarra Dragons 27 def. North Queensland Cowboys 24 at WIN Jubilee Oval. 

As can be seen from the aforementioned recent meetings, the Dragons have come out on top in three out of the five matches against the Cowboys. However, that does not tell the tale of either the overall meetings between the two sides, or the Dragons’ overall record in Townsville. 

Firstly, it’s the Cowboys who have the upper hand in their 29 overall encounters, winning 15 of those meetings, while the other 14 have gone the way of the Saints. This means that the Dragons are one of only three teams, which they hold a positive overall record against. The others being the Titans and Sea Eagles. 

As for the Dragons’ record in Townsville, they have won only twice in the tropical north, out of their 10 matches there. Both those victories came in 2003 and 2005, with identical scorelines of 36-16. This is clearly one venue that the red and whites detest playing at, given they have returned to either Southern Sydney or Wollongong on the back of some absolute hidings. Exemplifying this are two facts: their average losing margin in Townsville is 22 points, and they failed to score a single point in their last visit there in 2016, returning home with a 36-0 hammering at the hands of the then reigning premiers. 

Selected teams 

North Queensland CowboysSt George Illawarra Dragons
1Lachlan CooteMatthew Dufty
2Kyle FeldtNene MacDonald
3Enari TualaEuan Aitken
4Kane LinnettTim Lafai
5Justin O’NeillJason Nightingale
6Te Maire MartinGareth Widdop
7Johnathan ThurstonBen Hunt
8John AsiataJames Graham
9Jake GranvilleCameron McInnes
10Scott BoltonPaul Vaughan
11Gavin CooperTyson Frizell
12Coen HessTariq Sims
13Jason TaumaloloJack de Belin
Interchange
14Ben HamptonJeremy Latimore
15Shaun FensomKurt Mann
16Francis MoloLeeson Ah Mau
17Corey JensenLuciano Leilua
Reserves
18Jake CliffordPatrick Herbert
19Ethan LoweBlake Lawrie
20Mitchell DunnJai Field
21Antonio WintersteinJordan Pereira

The facts that matter

Cowboys 

The Cowboys comprehensively lost their clash against the Raiders last week in freezing conditions in Canberra. Although they were in the match at 14-12 with 20 minutes remaining, their weakest period in the match was brutally exposed, as their opponents convincingly put them out of the contest, with an inflated scoreline. Although they missed fewer tackles, and made more offloads than their opponents, their higher error count and inferior completion rate proved their undoing, as did their inferior numbers in the metres department. 

Despite their incredibly disappointing position on the ladder, a few statistics are favourable for the Cowboys, such as the possession rate (52% – ranked 2nd), receipts (6845 – ranked 1st), and supports (2497 – ranked 5th). Moreover, hulking lock forward Jason Taumalolo leads the competition in individual post contact metres, and is ranked second in individual runs and metres gained. However, they are all pale in comparison to their numbers in attack and defence. The Cowboys’ attack has been nothing short of appalling, scoring only 275 points to be ranked third worst in attack, behind the Eels and Tigers. Similarly, they have leaked 363 points, to be fourth worst in defence, behind the Knights, Titans, Eels and Sea Eagles. Moreover, their high error count has been a problem all season, as they are ranked second in errors (192) and fourth in handling errors (71). 

The Cows’ home record makes for rather pressing reading, as they have won only twice at home. Those victories came against the Sharks and Titans. What makes this stat even more disappointing is that 1300SMILES Stadium had been a graveyard for visiting teams, and this season has put an end to that. However, one thing in their favour is that they have won eight of their ten matches at home against the Dragons. They will take heart from the fact that most of those wins have been by blowout margins.

Dragons

The Dragons are coming off a post Origin home loss to the Tigers, to the tune of 20-16. That loss means that the Saints have relinquished their undefeated record at home this season. Despite the closeness of the final scoreline, the Dragons were deservedly beaten, having allowed their opponents skip out to a 20-6 lead. Although they were able to score two tries within five minutes to make things interesting, that deficit proved to great to overhaul. Moreover, despite making more offloads and missing fewer tackles, their substantially higher error count, and poor completion rate proved their downfall. 

Despite their recent wobbles, the Dragons are still ranked in the top five in terms of various key statistics, such as points, tries and goals scored, as well as post contact metres, tackle breaks, decoy runs, overall runs, metres gained, kick return metres, offloads, try assists, intercepts, kick metres, conversion rate, and 40/20 kicks. Deservedly so, given how well the started the season. However, the Dragons also find themselves in the top five for ineffective tackles and handling errors. Another key fact is that ever since their premiership winning season of 2010, they have experienced late season slumps, and their recent wobbles have suggested a potential repeat of such unwanted events. Some key examples include 2011 and 2015, where they started those seasons on fire, only to find themselves outside the top four. Moreover, last year they found themselves atop the ladder, only to miss out on the finals at the expense of their opponents. 

The away form of the red and whites reads three wins and four losses. This is actually worse than the away records of any other team in the top eight. This could prove their undoing in the finals, if they do not rectify this soon. They have an opportunity in this match against a team who have struggled at home and away. However, the win may not come so easily, because the Saints’ record in Townsville is is terrible, having only won two of their ten matches in the tropics. Although they won both matches by 20 points, most of their losses in Northern Queensland have been by margins which would be right royal thrashings. 

Prediction

Given the Dragons feel that they were robbed of a place in the finals by the Cowboys, they will be out for revenge against the team of participated in the finals at their expense. The Cowboys’ impressive run into the grand final would have undoubtedly made Saints fans wonder what might have been. Thus, the Dragons will be keen to rip into the Cowboys, and inflict further misery on their struggling opponents. 

The Cowboys may not be able to participate in the finals, but they still have an abundance to play for. First of all, they will be eager to avoid the wooden spoon at all costs, especially in a season which they were expected to challenge for the title. Secondly, they will want to send the great JT out on a positive note, despite the disappointments of this season, as well as restore some pride in their jumper. 

For the Dragons, their notorious late-season slump appears to be coming back to haunt them, as they have now lost consecutive matches for the first time this season. One of those losses came at home, meaning their undefeated home record has now been ceased. Their position in the top four is not guaranteed as yet, because the likes of the Roosters and bitter rivals, the Sharks, as well as the Warriors are directly below them on the ladder and are hitting form at the right time. Therefore, they will be ready to pounce on any slip-ups by the Dragons. 

An intriguing factor in this clash is the matchup between Cowboys playmaker Johnathan Thurston and Dragons halfback Ben Hunt, in what is essentially a battle between the Queensland Origin great, up against the current Maroons playmaker. Hunt has spoken of his admiration for JT, however, there will be no sentiment in this match, as he will be focused on winning the game for his team. However, his record against the Cowboys is poor, as he has lost 11 of the 20 matches he has played against them, including 7 out of the 11 matches in Townsville, while playing for the Broncos. One of them was in the 2015 grand final, where he dropped the kickoff in golden point, which effectively handed the Cows their maiden premiership. This will be his first clash against them in Dragons colours. 

Therefore, although the Dragons have a multitude to play for, such as securing a top-four berth, the Cowboys will be looking to avoid the dreaded wooden spoon at all costs, as well as sending JT out with a positive end to the season. Moreover, the Saints’ abysmal record in Townsville is too difficult to ignore, which will give the Cows all the confidence they need. This is why I feel compelled to tip an upset in this match. Cowboys by 2

Can the Cowboys upset one of the competition heavyweights on their home deck or will the Dragons add to their season of woe? Let us know in the comments below.

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