Greg Prichard, NRL.com
Cowboys v Knights
The battle for the last couple of finals berths continues with this clash between the 11th-placed Cowboys at home to the seventh-placed Knights. It's another case of there is no way both teams can make it, but at least the Knights would still be alive if they lost here. The Cowboys would be gone for good, left to contemplate another season of major under-achievement. But they're not dead yet, so what are their chances here? Pretty good at home – but their ability in attack will be tested by a Knights side that defends well.
The Cowboys are on 22 competition points, from nine wins and 12 losses. They are two points outside of the top eight, and must win all three of their remaining games to finish on 28 and give themselves a chance of making the finals. Their points for-and-against differential of plus-15 – obviously a bonus for a team with a 9-12 record – could make the difference in a tie with any other team on 28. The Knights are on 25 points, from 10 wins, 10 losses and a draw. They are three points behind the sixth-placed team and just one ahead of eighth and ninth.
Ever since the Cowboys' board decided to sack Neil Henry as coach, effective at the end of the season, the team has been winning. They have knocked over the Rabbitohs (30-12), Panthers (36-4) and Titans (22-10). Whether they are "doing it for Henry" or they just happened to come good isn't clear, but what were they doing before that?
The Knights have won four and drawn one of their past seven. They're up for the fight, no doubt about it. Their past three games have seen them draw with the Broncos (18-18), beat the Sharks (18-14) and lose to the Storm (23-10). They should have learned a valuable lesson from the Storm in how to win these critical games. The Knights led 8-0, and 8-4 at halftime, but were run down in the second half at home. When the Cowboys and Knights clashed in Round 3 at Hunter Stadium, the Knights won 36-4. That just proves how critical each game is. Had that result been reversed, the Cowboys would be in eighth place and the Knights 10th.
The Cowboys have an unchanged starting line-up. Ashton Sims drops off the bench, and Scott Bolton and Ethan Lowe join what is a five-man bench.
The Knights also have an unchanged starting line-up. Neville Costigan comes in on what is a five-man bench, replacing Korbin Sims.
Watch Out Cowboys: Dane Gagai hasn't scored a heap of tries for the Knights this season – he has five – but he is a very dangerous runner of the ball who consistently puts the defence on the back foot and creates great opportunities for his winger, Akuila Uate. Gagai has run for more than 100 metres in each of his past nine games. He'll ask some difficult questions of the Cowboys' defence out wide.
Watch Out Knights: Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt is really enjoying his time as a rookie first-grader. In his only three games he has scored three tries, made five line-breaks and run for a total of 324 metres. Why is he so hard to tackle? It might have a bit to do with the fact he's 192cm and 102kg, and has a bit of pace. Feldt will back himself to bump his way into the clear again here.
Plays To Watch: Robert Lui can sniff out a try. He has scored five in 12 games at halfback for the Cowboys this season. He's such a ball of muscle that he can get passes away in the tackle – he has 14 offloads – but he can also dummy and zip into the clear. Lui has four line-breaks, and the defence is going to have to watch him closely because as soon as he spies an opening he's off.
Knights winger James McManus has not gone longer than two games without a try this season, and he hasn't scored in his past two. He's due to use that tremendous strength of his to break through the defence and score. McManus has 15 line-breaks and 17 tries.
Key Match-Up: Ray Thompson v Danny Buderus. Thompson is relatively new to the hooking role, but he's making an impact in it for the Cowboys. In their win over the Panthers, he scored three tries, and against the Titans he ran for 106 metres. Buderus is 35. He plays half to three-quarters of the game now for the Knights. He isn't running the ball a lot, but he's still got the smarts and when something is on he can see it better than most. The Cowboys' defence has got to be aware of that.
Where It Will Be Won: Matt Bowen has got to run more as Cowboys fullback. He's still a dangerous player, but he's in the veteran class now and has to try to turn the clock back a bit. Bowen has run for more than 100 metres only four times in 15 games this season, and just once in his last six. He has three tries and five line-breaks. Knights fullback Darius Boyd is at the peak of his powers and running the ball a lot more than Bowen. Boyd has run it for more than 100 metres 15 times in 20 games. He has seven line-breaks and six tries. Bowen and Boyd are influential players. Their contributions in a game where the defence is going to be tough will have a major bearing on the result.
The History: Played: 29; Knights 17, Cowboys 12. The past 10 have been split, five apiece. The Cowboys have won three of the past four overall, and also three of the past four at this venue.
Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Grant Atkins & Chris Butler; Video Referees – Paul Mellor & Matt Rodwell.
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Televised: Fox Sports – Live, 7.30pm.
The Way We See it: The Cowboys to win at home, with – surprise, surprise – Johnathan Thurston to lead the way. In the past few games the superstar five-eighth has started to take on the opposition more, putting them in two minds as to whether he is going to pass or run. While there is life in the finals race, there is hope. Thurston will go with that and test the Knights' defence in every way possible. Cowboys by six points.
*Statistics: NRL Stats