Schick Hydro Preview: Sydney Roosters v North Queensland Cowboys
It's been dubbed State of Origin IV and the Roosters and Cowboys are living up to the traditional mind games with stomach bugs and selection bombshells headlining the build-up to this mouth-watering preliminary final showdown at Allianz Stadium.
Fresh from a well-earned week off, it's been anything but smooth sailing for the Roosters who have quarantined five-eighth Luke Keary (food poisoning) with the star recruit forced to miss both Monday's and Tuesday's media commitments.
In better news for Trent Robinson, winger Daniel Tupou has been named to return to the starting side on the left wing despite appearing to re-injure his troublesome groin in the dying stages of the qualifying final win over Brisbane while Zane Tetevano is also available after serving his one-game suspension.
A superficial glance at the Cowboys side tells you that they've named an unchanged line-up from the side that downed Parramatta last week. However, if you look at their extended squad you'll see that they've included co-captain Matt Scott in the No.21 jersey.
The inspirational prop hasn't played since he tore his ACL in Round 2 and would be a huge inclusion to a team that is already brimming with confidence. There are no guarantees that he will return – it could just be mind games – but North Queensland's chances would increase significantly if he was able to line up alongside Jason Taumalolo in what would be one of the most destructive middle duos in history.
Why the Roosters can win: A lot has been about the Roosters' inability to play for the full 80 minutes, but if they can somehow bottle the attack they unleash in the opening quarter of games then they should have this one in the bag.
The Tricolours have scored a whopping 30 tries in the first 20 minutes of matches this season – only the Storm have scored more (33) – while it's been an area of concern for the Cowboys who have only managed 16 four-pointers in the same period.
The Roosters have also started well in defence, allowing 13 tries in the opening quarter which is significantly better than North Queensland's early defensive numbers (22 tries).
Trent Robinson's men skipped out to a big lead early on against the Broncos in week one of the finals while the Cowboys have conceded the opening try in both of their playoff matches so expect the Roosters to race out of the blocks on Saturday.
Why the Cowboys can win: While all the attention has been on stars Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo, it would be remiss of us to ignore the contributions of some of North Queensland's unheralded troops who are all verging on career-best form. Back-rower Ethan Lowe was outstanding against the Eels with several try-saving tackles and a gut-busting chase on Will Smith that forced the fullback to score in the corner instead of under the posts. Lachlan Coote is a safe-as-houses fullback with silky skills while Kyle Feldt is arguably one of the best finishers in the NRL with 14 tries in his past 17 matches. Once you throw in Morgan's class and Taumalolo's force, you've got yourself a fairly formidable 17.
KEY MATCH-UP | MITCHELL PEARCE V MICHAEL MORGAN
22 | GAMES PLAYED | 25
274 | TOTAL KICKS | 251
15 | TRY ASSISTS | 20
21 | LINE BREAK ASSISTS | 12
7 | TRIES | 11
The history: Played 35; Roosters 25; Cowboys 10.
It's been one-way traffic in recent years with the Roosters winning four of the past five clashes, including a come-from-behind 22-16 victory at Allianz Stadium in July.
The Moore Park precinct has been a fortress for the Tricolours this season and was the scene of one of the most absurd finals matches in history when the Roosters shot out to a 30-0 lead over the Cowboys in 2014, only for North Queensland to pile on five unanswered tries to level things up with plenty of time on the clock.
James Maloney then potted a field goal to give the boys from Bondi the lead but there was plenty of late drama as Johnathan Thurston had an 80th-minute try disallowed because of an earlier knock on.
Match officials: Referee: Gerard Sutton. Assist referee: Adam Gee. Sideline officials: Nick Beashel and Chris Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine – Live Coverage from 7pm. Fox Sports 2 – Live coverage from 6:45pm.
NRL.com predicts: It's easy to be drawn to the Cowboys given their back-to-back upsets of Sydney opponents, but while you might have forgotten about the Roosters during their week off, there's a reason why they are about to host a preliminary final.
Their attack is elite when on song, the Bondi Wall is at times impenetrable and they never seem to lose at home. It's perilous to underestimate the Cowboys but we like to live dangerously. Roosters by 10.
This article first appeared on NRL.COM