Sunday afternoon at Rockhampton will see a headlong clash between two clubs who have spent the week dealing with disappointment while itching for a chance at redemption after surprising reversals in last weekend’s Hyundai QSL fixtures.
Ryan Park will be the venue for a Round 8 battle between the Brisbane Strikers and their hosts, the Capricorn Cougars, and both teams will be desperate for pride as well as maximum points.
The Strikers are stinging after the shock of missing several opportunities to put a struggling QAS team to the sword last Saturday before conceding a disputed penalty to enable the QAS to snatch two vital championship points away from them. Those two lost points left the unbeaten Sunshine Coast Fire almost disappearing from the Strikers’ view at the top of the table, having stretched their lead from six points to eight. The Strikers now share second spot with the North Queensland Razorbacks.
Meanwhile, the Cougars entered last weekend’s home clash with the Razorbacks in good form and with the opportunity to draw level with the Townsville-based club on points and stake a serious claim for a top four spot – if only they could beat them. Instead they imploded in front of their own supporters, going down 5-0. How dearly would they like to atone in front of their own supporters this week by beating the team from the big smoke for the first time?
Looking ahead at the game immediately after a rather makeshift Strikers team had drawn 1-1 with a young “Football Superstars” squad in a Tuesday night training match, Strikers coach Stuart McLaren (who will have two more games in charge of the Strikers before taking up his new job with the North Queensland Fury) admitted he was puzzled by what could possibly be termed a ‘mini form slump’ for his team. He was critical of their failure to punish the QAS last Saturday and no less unimpressed with what he had seen of their efforts against the young ‘wannabe’s’ from the Fox 8 TV series.
“I’ve got to say they haven’t responded particularly well on the evidence of tonight’s performance”, McLaren said on Tuesday. “So we’ll obviously have a bit of soul searching to do on Thursday to find out the reasons why we perhaps weren’t at our best on Saturday and why we were perhaps even worse tonight.
“How much the coaching staff are to blame, and how much the players were affected in confidence terms by Saturday’s result – we’ll nut all that out and hopefully we can have a good, solid session on Thursday and then again here on Saturday before we fly out to Rocky and give ourselves the best possible chance of bouncing back”.
One thing that McLaren said he was not inclined to do was to read too much into the Cougars-Razorbacks scoreline from last weekend. He said the Cougars’ heavy loss had been a surprise to him.
“Very much so – the margin, for one, and perhaps even the result”, McLaren said. “I think the Cougars at home are going to be a difficult proposition for any side, but the information I have from the game is that they certainly controlled proceedings and were caught once or twice with a counter-attack or sucker punch and from there they perhaps overcommitted to get back into the game and the floodgates opened”.
The Strikers have, of course, been badly impacted in recent weeks by a spate of injuries and suspensions. And the news is only very slightly better this week. Skipper Chay Hews is rated some chance of making the trip north as he continues his recovery from an ankle injury that has kept him out of his team’s last two matches. However, Chris Di Sipio – who was due back after serving a one-match suspension – has a badly infected foot after being stood upon in Tuesday night’s training game and will miss the Cougars clash.
Once again this week McLaren and his assistant, David Large, will be forced to mull not so much over who to leave out, but who from the club’s youth squad to bring into the senior team to add to the ten or eleven fit players they have left.
The Strikers, even at top strength, have had plenty of problems with the Cougars on the previous two occasions the teams have met this year – firstly in a pre-season friendly at Spencer Park that ended in a 3-3 draw, and secondly in the season opener at Perry Park which the Strikers shaded 1-0. Away from home, while still struggling to find eleven fully fit senior squad players to take north, the Strikers can expect to find a pumped-up Cougars side an even more difficult proposition.
The Cougars should pose plenty of problems out wide and going forward, with wingers Fergus McIntosh and Justin McMullen both pacy, skilful , aggressive and determined customers, and fullback Joe Burke also more than willing to overlap. And, while slippery centre-forward Tristan Fraser was kept under control by Jason Shade and his centre-back partner Matija Simic at Perry Park in Round 1, the Cougars’ skipper could be a different proposition this time around in front of his own supporters and with his team’s top four aspirations potentially at stake.
One thing is certain for the young men who will form McLaren’s bits and pieces squad on Sunday – if they are to keep the club in contention to successfully its premiership they are going to have to dig deep at some stage of the game and rediscover the form they were in prior to last weekend.
It should be anything but easy.