Raiders v Cowboys NRL Preview
The skeleton crew up against the crew with a skeleton or two of their own.
A Cowboys side riding high travels south from toasty Townsville to face a desperate Canberra outfit that must win right now to keep their slim finals alive.
Three straight losses means Canberra coach Ricky Stuart isn't in his happy place. After five irritable minutes of complaining about refereeing that was "not up to the standard of first grade", he had to force himself out of the press conference after a defeat at the hands of Penrith last Sunday.
The thoughts of another wooden spoon would be just starting to send cold shivers down the spine of a man who had a prolific start to his coaching career – winning a premiership in his very first year as an NRL coach in 2002 and guiding New South Wales to their last Origin series victory also in his first year at the helm in 2005.
On the other hand, Cowboys coach Paul Green has just been, "Yeah, pretty happy", through a fruitful three-week period that has seen his team climb back into the top eight for the first time since Round 1.
Both teams are currently polar opposites form-wise, bringing in different types of three-game streaks and crazy disparities in point differential of -84 for Canberra and +73 for North Queensland over that stretch.
The Cowboys have found full voice in attack recently but they will have to keep that momentum rolling through a previously untried halves combination of Robert Lui and Ray Thompson, with the absence of superstar playmaker Johnathan Thurston due to Origin.
Stuart has himself tinkered with a playmaking duo recently, promoting last year's halfback Josh McCrone off the interchange bench and back into the No.7 jersey at the expense of five-eighth Jack Wighton who admittedly looked more comfortable in the centres last week.
In team news, Canberra will be minus forward Josh Papalii who grabbed Queensland's final interchange position for State of Origin Game One. He will be replaced in the starting line-up by Joel Edwards, with Mitch Cornish to debut off the bench.
North Queensland have been forced to make wholesale changes with Thurston, Matt Scott, Brent Tate and James Tamou all on Origin duty while long-term injuries have ruled out back-rower Gavin Cooper and interchange hooker Cameron King. There is some good news however, with Thompson, Jason Taumalolo and Curtis Rona all returning from injury straight into the run-on side.
Ashton Sims and Ethan Lowe join them as starters with Anthony Mitchell, Ricky Thorby and Joel Riethmuller new additions to a six-man bench.
Watch Out Raiders: Canberra have conceded the most line breaks of any team in the competition (58), ahead of Wests Tigers (55). Add this to the fact that they have given away 28 more penalties than the league's second worst offender (Dragons), and it's not hard to see that the Raiders are losing the territory battle. If that's not enough, they rank dead last in run metres and kick return metres. While North Queensland are without Thurston, they feature potent strike power all around the park. Michael Morgan's playmaking roots have made the transition to his gig at fullback a lot easier – he is second of all fullbacks in try assists. Look for Morgan to create overlaps and put outside men through gaps on the edge of the ruck.
Watch Out Cowboys: In a game where skill level may be left wanting a little, the ability to gain territorial advantage becomes even more important, and no better way to gain cheap metres than with the boot. Canberra leads the league as a team in kick metres with 628 per game, spearheaded by five-eighth Terry Campese. If the Cowboys aren't careful, their lack of firepower up front could result in the game being played at their end of the field for much of the afternoon.
Plays To Watch: Believe it or not, the under-strength Cowboys pack listed as starters for Sunday's game still runs for more metres per game than a full strength Canberra pack (including Josh Papalii). With this in mind, the Raiders can thank their lucky stars North Queensland are without Test props Scott and Tamou. David Shillington, Brett White and Shaun Fensom absolutely must stamp some authority on this one.
Where It Will Be Won: The halves. Whichever side can steer its troops around the park the best will likely walk away with the two points. With two good positional kickers in Campese and McCrone, Canberra will likely look to kick early and turn around the Cowboys' backs if they don't get a sufficient roll forward from their middle men. The Cowboys have been a lot more adept at throwing around the pill recently, finishing with 83 and 93 per cent completion rates in the last two outings. Again, a lot of that could be lost with Thurston absent but either way there are worrying signs for a Raiders team that has given up the most line breaks of anyone this year.
History: Played 22; Raiders 11, Cowboys 11. North Queensland have won six of the past seven encounters dating back to 2011. It took the Cowboys eight years to get one over the Raiders in Canberra, but since 2007 both teams are split at 3-3 in the nation's capital.
What Are The Odds: Punters are tipping an upset here; the Cowboys, despite being $2.85 outsiders with Sportsbet.com.au, have had three times the money bet on them.
Match Officials: Referee – Gerard Sutton; Assistant Referee – Jared Maxwell; Touch Judges – Brett Suttor and Jeff Younis; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy and Ben Galea.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm.
The Way We See It: We really don't know what to make of the statistics as so many key players are out of one side. What we do know is that Sunday afternoons in Canberra are much like those for the Tigers at Leichhardt Oval – you never really know what can happen; case in point, last weekend's try to Reece Robinson just 30 seconds in. In a game they could win by 20 or lose by 20, we'll take the safe bet and say a more desperate Green Machine by six points.