Greg Prichard, NRL.com
Robert Lui has not played first grade for a year, but North Queensland are relying on him to provide what has been missing from their attack when they play Penrith at 1300SMILES Stadium on Saturday night.
It may be a lot to ask, but tough times call for tough measures and the Cowboys, after being widely touted as premiership contenders in the pre-season, are struggling with three straight losses after an opening-round win.
The road ahead looked promising when they beat Canterbury 24-12 at Bluetongue Stadium. That gave the Cowboys confidence for their home game against premiers Melbourne in Round 2, but a 32-10 loss in that match appears to have rocked them.
North Queensland have been shaky since. They fell apart in a 34-6 loss to Newcastle at Hunter Stadium and then gave up a 12-0 lead before losing 20-18 to the Warriors at Mt Smart Stadium.
The Cowboys haven't been fluent in attack, and a good example of what their coach Neil Henry is concerned about came late in the game against the Warriors. The Cowboys looked certain to score a try, but bombed it when one of their own players tried to take a pass that wasn't meant for him.
Lui, the former Wests Tigers halfback, was stood down from early last season until the end of it after pleading guilty in court to assaulting a woman and being placed on a two-year good behaviour bond and fined $2000.
He had played just the one game for North Queensland before that.
Michael Morgan had been named to continue in the role of halfback against the Panthers, but Henry has since made a switch to Lui, saying Morgan was still searching for confidence after coming back from a broken jaw.
"He's excited about it," Henry said, when asked how Lui was shaping up for his return to the big-time. "It has been a long time for him and he has worked extremely hard to get this opportunity.
"I'm looking for him to play his natural game. I think he's got a good kicking game, and he likes running the ball, so I expect him to be able to take the line on. And he throws a nice pass, so I expect him to be able to spark things up, particularly on our right side of the field."
Henry agreed the Cowboys had let themselves down with their finishing against the Warriors.
"We'd like to start as well as we did in that game," he said. "I thought we had played ourselves into the game quite well. We built a 12-0 lead, and it was just disappointing to concede a try right on halftime.
"In the second half, we didn't have a lot of good field position early on, but we still ended up having enough opportunities to win the game. We created plenty of chances, but we weren't executing at the right time. We came up with some poor options.”
Henry is aware the Cowboys need to respect the football or else their preparation will amount to nought. Statistics revealed by NRL.com’s Stats Insider this week revealed the Cowboys have the worst completion rate in the competition, tallying a miserable 67.75 per cent rate through Round 4.
Against the Warriors they started fairly well, completing 75 per cent of their sets in the first half for a 12-6 lead – before stumbling to just 53 per cent completions that saw the competition points slip from their grasp.
The Cowboys were one of eight teams with just one win going into this round. The Panthers were another.
Penrith's form line runs similar to North Queensland's in that they had a win in the first round, 32-10 over Canberra, and have lost three straight since. Those defeats came against Wests Tigers away (28-18), South Sydney at home (44-32) and Gold Coast at home (28-10).
The Panthers have two good hookers – captain Kevin Kingston and James Segeyaro, whom they signed from the Cowboys – who are both versatile, and Henry said he expected to see them on the field together at some stage.
"Ivan (Cleary) is probably trying to maximise the attacking ability of 'Chico' (Segeyaro)," Henry said. "And Kevin Kingston can play a role as a back-rower when Chico is out there. They can alternate.
"I'd used Chico up here going from hooker to lock, for his attack. He's a solid defender as well, so I think he (Cleary) is trying to squeeze as much as he can out of both ways."
The Cowboys desperately need star fullback Matt Bowen to hit top form soon. Bowen has run for more than 100 metres in a game only once this season – against the Storm (101 metres). That is also the only game in which he has made a line-break (one) and an offload (four).
Bowen has run for a total of only 138 metres in his three other games. He is partly a victim of his forwards not providing the platform he and fellow attacker Johnathan Thurston require, but probably still needs to try to get himself more involved.