Broncos face tough test in Townsville
As it stands right now, the Cowboys are one of the form teams in the game, writes Ben Ikin. Photo: Brendan Esposito
The Brisbane Broncos will have to conjure an almighty effort to beat the North Queensland Cowboys in Townsville.
As it stands right now, the Cowboys are one of the form teams in the game. They have significantly improved many aspects of their game from 2011 and are playing with the grittiness and determination required to succeed in September.
North Queensland coach Neil Henry has invested much time and energy fine-tuning his team in the lead up to season 2012, most notably their defensive capabilities. Last year the Cowboys had 80 tries scored against them and Henry was very keen to see that number drop closer to 60 in the current season.
While the team didn't quite hit the lower number, there has definitely been improvement and not just in the Cowboys' defensive structure and execution, but also in their attitude.
And when a team with the point-scoring ability and attacking flair of the Cowboys can nail what they do without the ball, they all of a sudden become very difficult to beat.
So what of the Cowboys' attack? Why are they the best attacking side in the competition?
When the Cowboys have the ball they are relatively unstructured. In a game today where most sides play to a highly choreographed game plan, Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen more often than not play what they see, not what they've practiced.
Young halfback Michael Morgan has been introduced into the mix and is playing well but more importantly, he knows his role when the Thurston/Bowen magic act takes the stage. The end result when these three men come together is a shifting, changing and unpredictable playmaking combination that is unlike anything else in the NRL.
Toughness in the middle is also non-issue for the Cowboys. With an all-Australian front row pairing, an underrated back row playing out of their skin and a wily, experienced dummy half, North Queensland are pretty much the complete package.
Now you'd think with a rap like I've just given the Cowboys they couldn't possibly be beaten, not least by a side who limped into the finals. But when you're up against the Brisbane Broncos, a club with a rich history of finals success and a never say die culture, victory is never a sure thing.
There can be no denying that the past two months for the Broncos have been less than satisfactory. But despite the fact they've only managed a single victory in their last seven games, this is a side that is littered with Origin and Test stars. Big match players win big games and the Broncos have a stack of them.
It also can't be ignored that Brisbane made life very difficult for two of the top four sides in Melbourne and Canterbury-Bankstown while on their losing run. I realise they were still losses but I saw enough in these two games to know that the fighting spirit at Red Hill is still alive and well.
So where have the Broncos been falling short?
I believe the answer actually lies in the Broncos greatest strength; their intensity and physicality in the contest.
Brisbane utilise a game plan that is very simple. But it works well because most of the time it is executed with real ferocity and urgency. You mostly know what's coming when you're playing the Broncos, but the relentless intensity of how they play wears you down.
However, this approach fails when the speed and physicality of the Broncos play cannot be sustained for long enough periods of time. The impact of their game plan becomes greatly diminished because simplicity without punch and pace is far too easy to read and counter.
The killer blow for the Broncos in 2012 is they simply do not have the same quality of genius playmakers they've been blessed with in past seasons. You know, the ones like Allan Langer and Darren Lockyer, who can create something from nothing to get a team back to into the game when all appears lost.
Justin Hodges can be brilliant but he plays in a position that gives him less opportunity to singularly influence the outcome of a game like a hooker, halfback, five-eighth or fullback can.
Now the Broncos might not have that type of player, but the Cowboys definitely do.
This is why I believe the result in the Cowboys v Broncos game will come down to two things. Can the Broncos play at a high enough intensity for long enough periods to break the Cowboys hearts? Or can the Cowboys nullify the Broncos physicality and return serve with the match- winning brilliance of Thurston and Bowen?
Whatever the result, rest assured the Queensland derby in week one of the NRL finals will be an absolute cracker. I know history will tell us that teams who finish in the bottom half of the eight can't win a grand final but I get the feeling whoever wins this one is a big chance of going all the way in 2012.