TWL RD 5 PREVIEW: WARRIORS V COWBOYS

NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS V NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS – 7.30PM (NZT)/5.30PM (AEST) SATURDAY, APRIL 7 @ MOUNT SMART STADIUM

The Storyline: The Warriors’ record-breaking start to 2018 rolled on with their most stunning result yet, a 30-6 pasting of the Roosters in Sydney despite missing a string of top-liners. Fans are wondering how long the unbeaten run can continue; sceptics are waiting for the bubble to burst.

Lining up for just their second home game this season, the Warriors are likely to be greeted by their first 20,000-plus Mount Smart crowd since 2013 with their clash against North Queensland part of a historic double-header.

The occasion has been boosted by the return from injury of Simon Mannering, who makes his first appearance of 2018, and Shaun Johnson, while Sam Lisone is back from suspension. The depth at Stephen Kearney’s disposal is emphasised by Mason Lino, Ligi Sao and Chris Satae – all superb against the Roosters – failing to hold a spot in the Warriors’ 17, despite the absence of James Gavet, Isaiah Papali’i, Nathaniel Roache and Gerard Beale.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, are a team under pressure. TWL’s pre-season pick as 2018 NRL premiers, the Cowboys have lost three on the trot to the Broncos, Storm and Panthers, struggling to find the same drive and spark that carried the club to an unlikely grand final appearance last year.

Johnathan Thurston has been well below his best, as have 2017 heroes Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo, while Test prop Jordan McLean was ruled out for three months with a foot injury after the 33-14 defeat to Penrith. The Paul Green contract saga could not be more poorly-timed for the Cowboys.

But a desperate Cowboys side is a dangerous one, presenting a new challenge to a Warriors side that is suddenly expected to do well.

The History: Played 37 – Cowboys won 19, Warriors won 18.

The Stats

-The Warriors boast a 13-6 home record against the Cowboys.
-The Cowboys are on a four-match winning streak against the Warriors.
-The Warriors have won four of their last five against the Cowboys at Mount Smart.
-Kyle Feldt has scored six tries in four appearances against the Warriors, including a hat-trick in his only previous visit to Mount Smart.
-The Cowboys are the only club Roger Tuivasa-Sheck has not scored an NRL try against.

3 Key Match-ups

Adam Blair v Jason Taumalolo: The Kiwis-Tonga subplot aside, this individual battle will be absolutely vital. An average of 155 running metres is impressive by general NRL standards, but it’s miles off the benchmark Taumalolo has set in recent years. McLean’s injury may just be the catalyst for a return to form for the Cowboys juggernaut. Blair, after a mixed first three rounds, enjoyed his best performance for the Warriors last weekend after switching to the No.13 jumper, laying on a try, getting more involved in a ball-running capacity and staying out of the ref’s bad books.

Issac Luke V Jake Granville: The stripped-down, rejuvenated Luke is the NRL’s form hooker, leading all No.9s for running metres and causing opposition defences all sorts of problems. But his enthusiasm has been equally crucial to the Warriors’ early-season surge. Granville has steadily declined since playing an integral role in the North Queensland’s 2015 premiership triumph, and this year he is averaging less than 10 running metres a game. A genuine livewire, Granville has to lift his spark-o-meter off zero when he comes up against Luke.

Shaun Johnson V Johnathan Thurston: It’s funny how much can change in a week. Johnson was the field goal-slinging hero of the Round 3 win over the Raiders, but after sitting out the Roosters road trip some Aussie pundits are questioning whether the Warriors are better off without him. They’re not, but there’s no question Johnson’s standards for the first 78 minutes in Canberra slipped – possibly because of the groin niggle – and he should be up for a big game to justify Lino being left out of the squad. Thurston has six try assists to his name already, but his rhythm still isn’t there. With other key pieces also off the pace, it’s up to JT to lead the Cowboys out of their funk.

Last Time They Met: The Warriors made the trek to Townsville in Round 20 last year after losing Shaun Johnson to injury a week earlier and produced one of their gutsiest performances of 2017. Locked 12-all at halftime, the Warriors remained in the match until the final 30 seconds, when Javid Bowne raced the length to seal a 24-12 win for the Cowboys.

Why We’ll Win: The Warriors’ confidence and momentum is sky-high after an incredible month of football, culminating in one of the club’s best-ever wins against the Roosters. To a man, the Warriors are performing out of their skin, and their two longest-serving players – Mannering and Johnson – are back on deck. If they replicate the defensive commitment and purposeful attack of the opening three rounds, the Warriors will be difficult to stop. The double-header should ensure a bumper crowd, helping the Warriors in their bid to restore Mount Smart’s graveyard status.

Why We’ll Lose: The Cowboys are busting for a win – a 1-4 start is very tough to bounce back from. While their form has been ordinary, particularly in the last two weeks, a turnaround is never far away when you possess three or four players widely regarded as being amongst the top 10 in the competition. Thurston and the Cowboys will use the underdog tag to their advantage and come out firing to turn the heat up on a home side that has a fair bit of expectation on them on a big day for the club.

The Punt: NZ TAB Odds – Head to Head: Warriors $1.87, Cowboys $1.87.

Tips – Warriors Win @ $1.87
-Warriors 12 & Under @ $3.10
-Total Points Under 40.5 @ $1.87
-First Tryscorer – Leivaha Pula @ $31
-Warriors 7-12 @ $7
-To Score a Try – Roger Tuivasa-Sheck @ $2.40
-To Score 2 or More Tries – Kyle Feldt @ $7.50

LISTEN: TAB NRL PODCAST – THE ADVANTAGE LINE

The Verdict: The Warriors really are in uncharted territory, aiming to become just the fifth team in the last decade to start a campaign 5-0. And given the irresistible brand of footy that has carried them this far, it seems only complacency could trip them up at home against a stumbling Cowboys side. The other factor that could thwart them, of course, is an out-of-this-world performance from Thurston, Taumalolo, Morgan et al, but the Warriors proved last week big names don’t matter and we have to tip a fifth straight win. Warriors by 10

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