NEW ZEALAND WARRIORS V NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS – 7.30PM (NZT)/5.30PM (AEST) @ MOUNT SMART STADIUM, AUCKLAND
The Storylines: Emotions were split after the Warriors’ 28-24 loss to South Sydney on the Sunshine Coast last weekend. On one hand, it was their most encouraging performance of the season so far against a genuine heavyweight. But it was a serious missed opportunity, throwing away a 12-point lead with 20 minutes to go.
But following the last-minute withdrawal of Blake Green – who would have been invaluable in helping the Warriors close out that match – it was an unmistakably gutsy performance and, overall, a significant step forward. Second-game half Chanel Harris-Tavita was superb in difficult circumstances, while Roger Tuivasa-Sheck and Tohu Harris were magnificent. Solomone Kata and Adam Blair continue to earn the ire of Warriors fans, however.
The Cowboys arrive in Auckland on a four-game losing streak and are missing Jason Taumalolo big time. Their backline is toothless and their big-name props performing well below their station. They should be desperate though.
But this is a home game against a battler the Warriors simply can’t afford to lose. A 2-4 record after being handed an incredibly soft early draw would be a disastrous outcome.
Ins and Outs: Green has been named but remains under a cloud. If the linchpin pulls out, Hiku will likely move to five-eighth again with Gerard Beale slotting in at centre.
The Warriors’ 17 is otherwise unchanged, but there is interest around the naming of Nate Roache and uncapped Patrick Herbert in the reserves.
The Cowboys welcome Scott Bolton back from suspension and Justin O’Neill returns to a toothless three-quarter line following Nene MacDonald’s shocking leg injury.
The History: Played 39 – Warriors won 20, Cowboys won 19
-The Cowboys have won four of their last six against the Warriors, but the Warriors won both clashes last season.
-Six of the last eight clashes were decided by 12 points or less.
-The Warriors are 5-1 in their last six at home against the Cowboys.
-The Warriors are on a five-match winning streak at Mount Smart.
-The Cowboys are 3-10 on the road since the start of 2018; this is their first match outside Queensland since Round 23 last year.
3 Key Match-ups
Roger Tuivasa-Sheck v Te Maire Martin: RTS is a top-three player in the NRL right now. He leads the competition in run metres, line-breaks and tackle-breaks. But he’s so much more than big numbers – an inspiration on both sides of the ball capable of carrying a team on his back. The Warriors would be lost without their skipper. Martin is a talented half playing fullback – and it shows. The Cowboys are not getting enough punch from the back, which is hardly the diminutive Martin’s fault. With the Cowboys clearly pinning their future on Michael Morgan and Jake Clifford, Martin shapes a potential recruit for the Warriors; a blinder in front of their thumb-twiddling recruitment team could spice things up a bit.
Chanel Harris-Tavita v Jake Clifford: Two young halves destined for long NRL careers. Clifford is just nine games deep into his first-grade tenure but has been anointed as Johnathan Thurston’s successor and a future Origin player. CHT has shown remarkable poise and composure in 160 minutes in the big time – as well as some tantalising attacking flashes – but will be looking to build on his game-management. Great No.6 battle awaits.
Adam Blair v Gavin Cooper: Pushed back out to the edge, Blair topped the tackle count against Souths and had a hand in Sam Lisone’s try. But it was two incredibly bad defensive reads – jamming in on ball-runners already covered by his inside man, costing two second-half tries – and a measly return of THREE RUNS IN EIGHTY MINUTES that were the standout features of another performance several notches below his pay grade. Gavin Cooper finished 2018 on a record-breaking nine-match tryscoring run and is adjusting to a post-Thurston world, crossing twice on the left edge in his last three games. If Blair persists with making poor decisions alongside Kata, Cooper is a player with the guile and ability to capitalise.
Last Time They Met: The Warriors coasted to a big lead in Townsville in Round 15 last year, then hung on for a gritty 23-16 win. RTS’s sizzling solo try was the undisputed highlight, while Shaun Johnson sealed the deal with a field goal.
The Warriors have covered just 10 of 28 as a favourite of 4 or more. The Warriors are 9-14 ATS as a favourite of 4 or more at Mt Smart. The Warriors have covered just 4 of 11 as a favourite at Mt Smart off conceding 28-plus. The over is 12-6 when the Warriors are favoured at Mt Smart off a loss. The over is 10-5 when the Cowboys are an interstate underdog of 4 or more. The over is 6-3 when the Cowboys are away off scoring 12 or fewer. The under has hit in eight straight Cowboys day games.
TAB’s Best Bet: Over 39.5 @ $1.90
The Verdict: The Warriors showed enough last week to suggest they are a fringe top-eight team at worst, with the potential to develop into a fifth- or sixth-place finisher. But these are the games they really need to win with authority. The last fortnight has been a huge improvement and, besides a couple of fairly obvious weak links, the team is performing well as a unit again. The Cowboys can just about forget about finals footy if they lose here, but with four consecutive scores of 16 points or less they don’t have the firepower to trouble the Warriors at home. Time to flex some muscle. Warriors by 14