Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen form the most lethal attacking combination in the NRL. When they get going the Cowboys are almost impossible to stop. You can hear it now, the commentators calling, ''Thurston onto Bowen - try!'' But after studying this pair closely and looking at how they combine, I discovered that the commentators rarely call Thurston passing to Bowen (aka ''Mango'') for a try, or vice-versa. You see, the interesting thing about the Thurston-Bowen combination is that they rarely combine. Let me explain.
About four minutes into North Queensland's clash against Brisbane last week, the Cowboys were attacking the Broncos' try line. Thurston had the ball, and Bowen was on his outside. Thurston deliberately used Bowen as a decoy as he passed across the front of Bowen to Brent Tate. Bowen ended up scoring on the end of this movement but it was no fluke that he didn't receive the ball off Thurston. Using Bowen as a decoy is one of Thurston's favourite moves, as is Bowen using Thurston as a decoy.
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Another 30 minutes into the game against the Broncos, the Cowboys had a play-the-ball 40 metres out from the try line on the fifth tackle. Thurston was standing on his customary left side of the ruck, and all and sundry expected the ball to go to his side. Realising this, Bowen called the ball on the right side. He attacked the unsuspecting Broncos with speed, and grubber-kicked in behind their defensive line. The ball bounced up perfectly for halfback Michael Morgan, who sprinted on to it and scored between the posts. Thurston's role in this try was to simply stand on the opposite side of the ruck to Bowen.
These tries against the Broncos didn't come about by coincidence. The way Thurston and Bowen use each other to fool the defence is a work of art, and they continually come up with new tricks. The pictures are from the lead-up to a Cowboys' try against Newcastle in round 25, which further illustrate my point and give great insight into what Manly will have to deal with tonight. When playing against the Cowboys it is important to get your defensive numbers correct, particularly on the right edge, as Thurston plays predominantly on the Cowboys' left side of the field.
Picture one shows Thurston and Bowen standing side-by-side on the left side of the ruck. This would send danger signals to any defensive line. To accommodate this, Newcastle placed five defenders on their right side at a position on the field where they would usually need only four. The Cowboys took a hit-up through Dallas Johnson on the next play, and he got tackled exactly in the middle of the field - as seen in picture two. After this tackle, the Newcastle defensive line maintains its fortification of the right side as they now have six defenders covering the edge where Thurston and Bowen are positioned. At this field position Newcastle would normally need only five defenders. Bowen stood with Thurston deliberately to attract extra defenders to that side of the field. Had the Knights not put an extra defender on that side, Bowen and Thurston would have taken them on with a set-play. As soon as Bowen counted the six defenders, however, he raced to the other side of the play-the-ball. This put him in a position to take advantage of the Knights being short of defenders on the other edge where he chimed into the play perfectly, scoring a try with hardly a hand being laid on him. As is often the case with the Thurston-Bowen combination, Thurston didn't touch the ball on this play. But it is his ability to attract defenders to his side of the field that was a major factor in the try being scored.
If you're not a Manly fan, sit back tonight and enjoy watching the game's best combination as they use each other, read each other and completely deceive the defence in the process. But don't expect to see them pass the ball to each other too often.
Even if you are a Manly fan, you might still want to watch out for Thurston-Bowen show. I just don't think you'll enjoy it quite as much.