The North Queensland Cowboys will look to continue their stunning season for another week when they host a preliminary final in Townsville against the Parramatta Eels, who have gone past the semi-finals after three failures in a row.

The Eels' finals record has been one of the key talking points surrounding this year's finals series.

Brad Arthur's team might have dramatically shot up the ladder to make the semi-finals for the first time in 2019, but since then, it has been a trio of Week 2 finals exits.

It's a record they were finally able to snap last weekend though, with the blue and gold finding a way past the Canberra Raiders in what was a one-sided blitz at CommBank Stadium.

It's difficult to know exactly how much to read into that fixture though, given the Raiders finished in eighth spot on the table and frankly, played the equivalent of their grand final the week before when they were able to knock the Melbourne Storm out in an elimination final away from home.

Scraping into the finals was what defined the Raiders this season, but plenty more must define the Eels in what is potentially the final season their premiership window is open, with a host of talent set to head for the departure gates at the end of the season and plenty of questions hanging over the future of other stars in blue and gold.

The Eels still have plenty of questions surrounding their level of consistency, and it could again be what shapes this game.

When the Eels are at their best, they are close to unbeatable. They have proven it time and time again this season, being the first team to beat the Penrith Panthers at the foot of the mountains in almost two full seasons, before also downing the Melbourne Storm in a crunch fixture late in the season.

But then they dished up a woeful second half in the first week qualifying final ensure they would have to do things the hard way by playing the Raiders last week.

Consistency in that game dropped off from the first 40 minutes to the second 40 minutes, and if the trend of not being able to string performances - let alone 80 minutes - together on the trot continues for the blue and gold then they are simply never going to break through for a premiership to break a drought which haunts supporters.

On the other side of the coin, the rise of the Cowboys this season has been meteoric.

Out of absolutely nothing, a team who were tipped for the scrapheap have risen to the penthouse and now are just 80 minutes away from a grand final.

There is a long track record in the NRL of the teams in the preliminary finals going into the grand final after having a week off and holding hosting rights.

It doesn't always happen, but it's hard to argue the week off to heal injuries and recover from a 93-minute marathon in the qualifying final against the Cronulla Sharks won't help Todd Payten's side.

What is clear though is that they will need to be better than they were against the men in black, white and blue a fortnight ago.

Defence was virtually non-existent. The old saying rings true surrounding defence winning finals, and in the first week, that was true in three out of four games.

Last weekend, it didn't happen for the Eels, but it's quite clear this will be a far closer game, played in the Townsville heat and humidity with summer around the corner.

At the time of writing, the temperature is expected to peak out at 30 degrees in Townsville on Friday, with a high humidity reading to boot.

It's something most teams - Cowboys excluded - won't have experienced since the pre-season when they were training in the heat, and while that temperature will fall away a little bit by kick-off, 25 degrees at 9pm is still on the forecast, meaning this could become a war of attrition and the week off will prove valuable.

Team news

North Queensland Cowboys
1. Scott Drinkwater 2. Kyle Feldt 3. Valentine Holmes 4. Peta Hiku 5. Murray Taulagi 6. Tom Dearden 7. Chad Townsend 8. Jordan McLean 9. Reece Robson 10. Reuben Cotter 11. Tom Gilbert 12. Jeremiah Nanai 13. Jason Taumalolo
Interchange: 14. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow 15. Luciano Leilua 16. Coen Hess 17. Griffin Neame 18. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown 20. Jake Granville

In a move that will surprise absolutely no one, the Cowboys have made no changes from the qualifying final against the Sharks.

No serious injuries have combined with a 13-day period for niggles to heal, so the Cowboys could well be the fittest they have been for the duration of the campaign for the clash with Parramatta.

Parramatta Eels
1. Clinton Gutherson 2. Maika Sivo 3. Viliami Penisini 19. Bailey Simonsson 5. Waqa Blake 6. Dylan Brown 7. Mitchell Moses 8. Reagan Campbell-Gillard 9. Reed Mahoney 10. Junior Paulo 11. Shaun Lane 12. Isaiah Papali'i 13. Ryan Matterson
Interchange: 14. Bryce Cartwright 15. Jakob Arthur 16. Oregon Kaufusi 17. Marata Niukore 18. Makahesi Makatoa 20. Nathan Brown

The Eels have made two changes for the preliminary final, with one forced and the other slightly surprising.

The forced change has seen Tom Opacic drop out of the side with injury. He was only cut 24 hours from kick-off, with Bailey Simonsson joining the team.

It's unclear at the time of writing whether Simonsson will shift onto the wing with Waqa Blake to play in the centres, or whether they will play as named.

Brad Arthur also elected on Tuesday to bring Byrce Cartwright onto the bench for Makahesi Makatoa. It was thought the only way the utility was getting into the side was if he took the spot of Jakob Arthur, however, the Eels will run with a much smaller forward pack with a utility and a specialist half on the pine.

Where it'll be won


It's a dirty word for the Parramatta side. It's a word they have never been able to work out in the last four seasons.

Brad Arthur has previously spoken out about the fact he 'isn't worried' about the side's consistency or lack thereof, but it's the single biggest problem for the blue and gold.

Outside of Arthur being able to get his team playing for 80 minutes, it's clear this is one game where forward rotation and territory will be the biggest factor.

In heat that hasn't been experienced since March, petrol tanks will be running on empty earlier than usual, and that'll be more so the case if one team or the other finds themselves on the back foot doing a lot of defending.

The two forward packs possess some of the best big men in the game. Reagan Campbell-Gillard, Junior Paulo, Isaiah Papali'i, Shaun Lane and Ryan Matterson on one side, against the likes of Jason Taumalolo, Reuben Cotter, Jeremiah Nanai and Luciano Leilua on the other.

It's a brutal match up through the middle third and on the edges, and whichever team can maintain the race - again, you have to go back to Cartwright's selection which decreases the size of Parramatta's bench overall - will undoubtedly have an enormous advantage in this one.

The Eels also must have Clint Gutherson fire from the first minute to the last. It's hard to pinpoint a single player who makes such a difference on his team, although the same can be said about Scott Drinkwater, who has had a phenomenal season for the men from Townsville.

While it's not a game you might expect to be high-scoring, the battles of Reece Robson against Reed Mahoney, and that of the halves - Chad Townsend and Tom Dearden against Dylan Brown and Mitchell Moses - will also decide the game, although those three key positional battles only really become a serious factor if the forwards are under control on both sides, which one might expect them to be in what should be the most even match up on the park given the names listed across both team sheets.

That said, the form of Robson this year has been something special.

The Cowboys hooker has quickly elevated himself to become on the best hookers in the game, while Mahoney has, if anything, gone backwards this year, which probably hands another pivotal edge the way of the Cowboys.

The history

There is nothing between these sides overall, but when it comes more specifically to matches in Townsville, and those in finals, the Cowboys are all over the Eels.

North Queensland have won both finals, and 11 of the 18 games played in Townsville, although it must be mentioned that the Eels have never played at the new stadium in the city since it opened in 2020.

Overall record: Played 44, Eels 22, Cowboys 21, drawn 1
Record in Townsville (all venues): Played 18, Cowboys 11, Eels 6, drawn 1
Record in finals: Played 2, Cowboys 2, Eels 0


This is a tough game to tip, simply because we don't know how much to read into the Cowboys' defence from a fortnight ago, and which Eels turn up.

If the Eels turn up at their best and play 80 minutes, they will be hard to beat, but even then, Payten's side must be the slight favourites given home ground advantage and the extra rest.

Cowboys by 4.

Key information

Kick-off: Friday, September 23, 7:50pm (AEST)
Venue: Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
Referee: Grant Atkins