With just one win each after five rounds of the season, crunch time has arrived for the North Queensland Cowboys and Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, who will both go head-to-head in Townsville this Saturday night seeking their second win of the season.
After defeating the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks in Round 1, the Cowboys have crashed to four straight losses, three of them on the road, to the Brisbane Broncos, Melbourne Storm and New Zealand Warriors.
It is their worst start to a season since 2009 and some critics have suggested that Johnathan Thurston, who is to retire at the end of this season, may have played on for one season too long.
The 2015 premiership co-captain, who turns 35 later this month, has already stepped down from all representative duties to put all his energy and focus into attempting to deliver his club a second NRL premiership, which would serve as the perfect retirement gift.
However, it has been over a month since the Cowboys last won a game and already they are facing an uphill battle to claim their second title, let alone reach the finals.
The last team to achieve the ultimate glory after starting a season so poorly were the Sydney Roosters in 2002; that year, they also lost four matches in a row between rounds two and five after starting the season with a win over the South Sydney Rabbitohs.
Thus, there is no reason for any Cowboys fan to believe that their side’s premiership dream is over.
Their fortunes could so easily have been different had Scott Bolton been able to force his way over the tryline in the Round 2 match against the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium, only to be crash-tackled into the goalpost by opposing forward Tevita Pangai Jr in the dying minutes.
Other than that, the Cowboys have been anything but dismal in their losses to the Storm, Panthers and Warriors, conceding at least 22 points in each of those losses, as well as in the aforementioned match against the Broncos.
Life under new coach Dean Pay has got off to a tough start for the men from Belmore, who were perhaps unlucky to have had to face the Storm and Roosters in their opening two matches, both away from home.Improving their defence will be key to beating the Bulldogs, whose only win came against the Penrith Panthers in Round 3, this Saturday night.
They narrowly went down to the Rabbitohs in Round 4 but appeared flat as they allowed the Canberra Raiders to register their first win of the season last week.
High-profile recruit Kieran Foran has endured a modest initiation as a Bulldog, performing solidly in the loss to the Storm but then missing a simple conversion against the Rabbitohs whereby his kick sailed under the posts.
History is against his club, who have lost six of their last seven meetings against the Cowboys dating back to the start of the 2013 season. In fact, the Cows haven’t lost to the blue-and-whites since Paul Green took over as coach ahead of the 2014 season.
The rivalry doesn’t end there – only the most passionate Bulldogs fans who can stretch their memories back to the early noughties will remember that Johnathan Thurston played for the club 29 times between 2002 and 2004, featuring in the club’s most recent premiership 14 years ago.
Given how much service he has given to the Cowboys since moving north in 2005 (and how much pain he has inflicted on his former club, as well as others), many Dogs fans will be wondering why their club couldn’t afford to keep him in the first place.
With this being their only clash this season, Thurston therefore stands to deliver the final blow to the club with which he debuted in 2002, the year massive salary cap breaches saw them take out that year’s wooden spoon.
Regardless of the result, Bulldogs fans will probably be happy to see the back of him after this Saturday night, barring an unlikely finals clash between the two clubs in September.