North Queensland Cowboys v Brisbane Broncos @ 1300 Smiles Stadium
There will be no Grand Final replay in 2016 as the Cowboys and Broncos meet in an explosive Elimination Semi Final at 1300 Smiles Stadium in Townsville on Friday Night. The 2 combatants and Queensland rivals have produced 3 truly memorable back-to-back games with all being decided by a single point, and two in Golden Point. The Cowboys, long considered "little brother" up North, took the one that mattered most with an unbelievable 17-16 Grand Final victory in 2015 after a try in the final 10 seconds sent the game into Golden Point. Anthony Milford was the hero for the Broncos with a late field goal in their golden point win in Round 4, while Johnathan Thurston repeated his Grand Final heroics when he iced a late field goal as the Cowboys came back to win 19-18 back in Round 11. While the games between the 2 clubs have been intense and drama filled affairs with plenty of physicality, they have also been memorable for the spirit in which they have been played, as several Origin team mates pit their wares against each other.
The Cowboys have suffered 3 crucial blows in the lead-up to this match with Kane Linnett, Antonio Winterstein and Ethan Lowe all ruled out with injury. Paul Green has gambled at the selection bringing in the inexperienced Javed Bowen and debutant Kalyn Ponga to the starting backline. Coen Hess is promoted to the starting back row with John Asiata coming onto the bench. The Cowboys failed to gain a week off when they were beaten in a low scoring and intense encounter against Minor Premiers the Storm in Melbourne 16-10. They will be looking for a far more dominant performance from their Big 3 in the forwards in Matt Scott, James Tamou and James Taumololo all putting in sub-par performances. All 3 failed to run for 100 metres and the Melbourne Storm pack got on top last week. The Cowboys have a size advantage in the forwards and they need to run with far more purpose and aggression to get on top of the workmanlike Broncos pack. The Cowboys were outstanding at home in 2016 winning 11 of 12 matches with their only loss coming against the Storm when they were without Johnathan Thurston.
The Broncos are missing the suspended James Roberts with Tom Opacic back from a shoulder injury. Jordan Kahu moves into the centres with young Jonus Pearson coming onto the wing. The Broncos advanced to week 2 of the finals with an unconvincing 44-28 win against the Titans. The try fest would have concerned coach Wayne Bennett who will need his men to display far more tenacity in defence against a potent Cowboys outfit. The Broncos were all at sea under the high ball and managed to concede 2 really soft tries from kicks. Despite the inconsistent display, the Broncos are riding a 6-match winning streak and recently showed against Melbourne they are more than capable of raising the intensity with a stunning win in Melbourne. After the heartbreak of 2015 the Broncos will be desperate to gain revenge here on their way to looking to get to another Grand Final in 2016.
Verdict - Broncos 22 Cowboys 20
I am worried the Broncos might be able to spring an upset here. The Cowboys have suffered a hammer blow losing 3 experienced players this week. Whilst these 3 are not their superstars, they are all reliable and experienced first graders. I know they have wraps on young Ponga and Bowen, however this is a massive occasion to bring them into the pressure cooker of an Elimination Semi-Final. With Ethan Lowe ruled out for the season it appears the curse of reigning premiers might be striking at exactly the wrong time of the year for the Cowboys. The Cowboys looked a little jaded last week in Melbourne, especially in the forwards, and that is a concern coming off a 6-day turnaround. I think while Brisbane have been far from impressive against the Roosters and Titans in recent weeks, they showed against Melbourne what they are capable of. They have a lot of very experienced players in this type of cauldron that will be motivated by last year’s heartbreak in the Grand Final. I think they might thrive on the underdog tag tonight. I tipped the Cows to make the Grand Final this year, however I would be tipping with my heart and not my head if I went for them tonight considering their injuries. Broncos by 2.