Rugby League is in good shape when 20,000
tickets are snapped up for a premiership match in Newcastle six days
before it is played.

But Sunday’s top of the table clash between
the Newcastle Knights and the North Queensland Cowboys is no ordinary fixture –
it’s a game involving two of the best players in the premiership, and the two
standout teams of the competition, early days though it is. It’s a promotional dream for the NRL, and
for Channel Nine, which continues to benefit from high ratings for its delayed, advertisement-drenched match replays.

The Cowboys have the best defensive record
in the competition. In five games just 58 points have been scored against them,
and all five games have been against credible opponents – the Broncos, Sea
Eagles, Storm, Eels and the reigning premiers, the Tigers. The Knights, who have won one game less
than the Cowboys (when Andrew Johns was out) have the best attacking record –
running up 217 points in five matches.

And both teams go into the match at Newcastle’s Energy
Stadium just about injury free.

The most anticipated clash will be between
the game’s best player, Andrew Johns, and the player who I believe will assume
the mantle in time, the Cowboys half, Jonathan Thurston. It is disappointing that some of the games
legends have already tagged Thurston as the “equal” of Johns … give me a break!

In reality the 2005 Dally M Medal winner
has the playing and personal qualities that might take him to the top. But he
has played just 60 first grade matches. Andrew Johns has played 229. Time is on Thurston’s side, but he doesn’t
need the added pressure of unrealistic expectations.

The market framers have the Knights as
favourites – and that is surely due to the Johns Factor. I see it as a dead
even contest.

But calling the game the “grand final
preview” almost SIX MONTHS before the grand final is held is surely over the
top. A lot of water, and maybe some blood, will flow under the bridge before