Date: Friday, 24th August, 2018
Venue: 1300 Smiles Stadium, Townsville
Kick Off: 7:50 AEST
Head Referee: Grant Atkins
Assistant Referee: Phil Henderson
Head-to-head: Played 39, Eels 20 Cowboys 18 Drawn 1
Odds: Eels $2.65 Cowboys $1.50
Broadcast: Foxtel, Nine from 7:30pm
Last Four Encounters:
1. Eels 20 def Cowboys 14 TIO Stadium – Round 14, 2018
2. Cowboys 24 def Eels 16 ANZ Stadium – 2nd Semi-Final, 2017
3. Cowboys 32 def Eels 6 TIO Stadium – Round 14, 2017
4. Eels 26 def Cowboys 6 1300 Smiles Stadium – Round 9, 2017
The Warm Up
Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, welcome to Spoonbowl!
The match which would have been initially marked as a finals preview is now just as important as each club desperately tries to avoid the embarrassment of that dreaded kitchen utensil award.
Two years without a true home ground has arguably taken its toll on the cellar-dwelling Eels. The Cowboys have been just as disappointing as Parra this season, but they have the opportunity to honour the greatest player in their short history with one final home victory. The players are likely to be as pumped for this as they would be for a big finals match.
Big match build up, home ground, sell-out crowd, Thurston’s last Townsville appearance, close to full-strength pack – there’s plenty for the referees to deal with and few advantages to be found for the Eels.
The stage is set.
Having a Punt:
This week’s value bet (TAB) is in the line/over under double. Take the Cowboys giving away 5.5 points start with over 43.5 points in the match @$4.25.
The first try favourites are listed below:
Eels: Hayne – $9
Cowboys: Feldt, Gela-Mosby – both $9
Feed Your Footy Brain
Apart from a “home” win in Darwin, the Eels are yet to taste success away from home in 2018. It’s an abysmal record which doesn’t auger well for their penultimate match of the season.
Tracking: Jaeman Salmon
After just three games of his NRL career (well two and a cameo), Jaeman Salmon finds himself standing opposite one of the greats of all time in a rare full-house atmosphere for the 2018 Eels. Unfortunately, few in the arena will be cheering for the Blue and Golds.
It’s fair to identify Salmon’s selection as resulting from Brad Arthur’s search for balance in a dysfunctional Parramatta backline. “The Apprentice” is a running half, a natural second receiver who won’t be over calling Mitch Moses in the Eels attack. The new combination worked a treat first-up against the Dragons, but looked a bit at sea against the Storm.
Of course, to describe Salmon as nothing more than someone who won’t get in the way of a dominant half is to downplay his achievements as a highly decorated junior star and a courageous player who’s overcome a broken neck to make his NRL debut.
In last year’s SG Ball Grand Final, we watched Salmon almost single-handedly drag his Sharks team back into the match against the all-conquering Eels side. Cronulla’s loss has now become the Eels gain as the talented five-eighth sought a better opportunity out west.
Salmon is a confident player and, though this clash will fit the big match atmosphere bill, he won’t be overawed. I’m expecting him to play a bigger role in Parra’s plans this week.
Danger man: Jason Taumololo
There is no avoiding the threat that the Cowboys other JT will pose in this match. The code’s leading post-contact metre runner (1575m) is a beast even on an off day, so trying to shut him down without your own leading middle forward is a monumental task.
The injury to Nathan Brown could not have come at a worse time for an Eels team desperate to avoid the Wooden Spoon and yet to win an away match. What he regularly gives away in size, Cyborg more than makes up for with his relentless charges and powerful defence. What would have been his assignment on Taumololo must now be taken up by the other Eels forwards.
Whether he’s dragging defenders with him or leaving them in his wake, the net effect of a Taumololo charge is a retreating and bent defensive line. A disorganised defence will be a sweet, sweet sight for Thurston as he showcases his wares one last time in front of the Townsville faithful.
If the Eels forwards can’t shut down the big bloke it could be a double JT celebration this week.
Cowboys: 1. Te Maire Martin 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Justin O’Neill 4. Kane Linnett 5. Gideon Gela-mosby 6. Jake Clifford 7. Johnathan Thurston 8. Matthew Scott 9. Jake Granville 10. Jordan McLean 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Coen Hess 13. Jason Taumalolo
Bench – 14. Ben Hampton 15. John Asiata 16. Francis Molo 17. Scott Bolton 18. Ethan Lowe 19. Javid Bowen 20. Shaun Fensom 21. Corey Jensen
Eels: 1. Corey Norman 2. Jarryd Hayne 3. Michael Jennings 4. Clint Gutherson 5.George Jennings 6. Jaeman Salmon 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Kane Evans 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Siosaia Vave 11. Marata Niukore 12. Tepai Moeroa 13. Peni Terepo
Bench – 14. Cameron King 15. Tim Mannah 16. David Gower 17. Brad Takairangi 18. Ray Stone 19. Oregon Kaufusi 20. Josh Hoffman 21. Bevan French
Mitch Moses vs Johnathan Thurston
Without ignoring the importance of the forwards in determining the winner in this match, the respective halfbacks will be both the barometer of the work in the middle and the major players in this clash.
In last week’s preview I highlighted the form of Moses. I noted his fine performance against the Dragons, but then wrote this:
“But one fine display does not vindicate him holding the reins to the team. Just like every other Eels player, the need for consistency is paramount.”
The Eels entered the Melbourne match significantly down on forward troops. Tim Mannah, Kane Evans and Danny Alvaro had joined the previously missing forwards Manu Ma’u, Beau Scott, Tony Williams and Kenny Edwards on the sidelines. Without question, this would impact what any half is capable of producing.
However, as the match unfolded, the Storm faced a manpower crisis of their own, and the inability of the Eels playmakers to direct traffic to Melbourne’s weak points became a major concern. It’s unlikely that the Cowboys will present too many opportunities on a platter this week, so playmakers such as Moses will need to produce big time for the Eels to emerge victorious.
Lining up against Moses will be a modern day great. Thurston is one of the most gifted football conductors that I’ve ever witnessed, and I place him almost on the same pedestal as Peter Sterling when it comes to rugby league intelligence.
The Cowboys legendary half will not leave the field with the music still in him in this final home game. His team mates will be equally inspired. If you could pick the worst time to face JT in his final season, this match would be circled, underlined, highlighted and then projected onto the big screen.
Hats off to you Mr Thurston. I’ll be hoping that you lose but definitely acknowledging your class.
And The Winner Is?
The odds are massively stacked against the Eels this week.
Besides being further depleted in personnel via the injury to Nathan Brown, a massive, passionate and vocal home crowd will be in attendance, determined to see JT exit the field as a winner.
Anyone who believes that 50/50 calls have any chance of falling the Eels way in such an environment truly believes in fairy tales. It just won’t happen. Any of the Top 4 teams would struggle to walk away from Townsville with the two points. Discipline will be paramount. The slightest indiscretion will be punished.
Throughout their history, the Eels have produced some spoiler performances, but it will take either a season-best effort or a Cowboys implosion for Parra to win this. It feels so wrong to be so negative, and alarmingly I’m sure I’m not alone in such thoughts. Our players can’t afford to let such negativity cross their minds – that’s why they’re the paid professionals.
I’m hoping for a fair go for the Blue and Golds without too many crowd decisions. I think it will be a high scoring encounter.
Cowboys to win by 8
Cowboys 36 Eels 28
Man of the Match – Johnathan Thurston