Matt Encarnacion, Western Sydney Correspondent, NRL.com
Panthers v Cowboys
Monday, 7pm (AEST)
Does anyone remember the month of April, when the only streaks Ivan Cleary could muster at Penrith were the grey ones growing through his 43-year-old set of hair?
Or recent months when the Cowboys were considered about as dangerous on the road as an empty shoebox?
We could go on.
Like adding the fact that Penrith's current rehab group almost outnumbers the total career wins North Queensland coach Paul Green has next to his name. Or how Green has achieved success despite heading into Round 1 of 2014 without a recognised fullback. Or how Penrith are doing it with a lone playmaker who at this time last year, was being booed by the London Broncos. And he was playing for them.
Yet here we are in mid-August, and on a weekend that includes traditional blockbuster fixtures between superpowers the Rabbitohs-Broncos and the Eels-Bulldogs, this Monday night game is the only one that pits two of the competition's top five teams against each other.
The Panthers continue to defy rugby league gravity by winning without key men Peter Wallace, Brent Kite, Elijah Taylor and Bryce Cartwright. Despite finishing their third straight game without a full complement of players, their 16-4 effort to overcome the Dragons was described by Cleary as their best defensive performance of the year.
The Cowboys, on the other hand, had the backs-against-the-wall Tigers on their knees at halftime during their 64-6 rout in Townsville last week. We don't know what was more embarrassing – the scoreline itself, or that Johnathan Thurston was taking conversions left-footed.
Not surprisingly, both coaches named unchanged line-ups on Tuesday.
Watch Out Panthers: We're going to take Robert Lui's five line break assists against the Tigers last week with a grain of salt, because we reckon Paul Green himself could've dusted off the boots and put on a Harlem Globetrotters-like display for the home fans. But since shifting to five-eighth, that's nine set-ups in six games for the supremely talented but not always consistent Lui. Considering he had just three in 13 games prior to that, the Cowboys might have finally found the right mix in the halves.
Watch Out Cowboys: The Panthers have named wingers, but they're not really wingers. Their left-edge wingman Josh Mansour is doing a particularly good job moonlighting as one, despite averaging prop-like numbers such as his 171 metres and 17 carries per game. And while it remains to be seen how many tackles he can get, the bloke busted 11 tackles last week – the fourth time he's hit double digits this year – so we'll give him the benefit of the doubt.
Plays To Watch: The 'Double Ms', fullbacks Matt Moylan and Michael Morgan, have had significant, Dally M-like impacts on their respective teams' fortunes this year. Both players, whose futures lie in the halves, have found plenty of success on similar long-side shifts running off main men Jamie Soward and Johnathan Thurston that involve subtle manoeuvrings in between two decoys or an additional pass towards their fringes.
Where It Will Be Won: Penrith are one of the best proponents of second-phase play, offloading at a signature-Cleary clip of almost 12 per game, good for third most in the NRL. However the Cowboys are just as adept at limiting that exact style, conceding just 152 offloads all year, the second fewest in the competition. Whichever side can impose their attacking style the most – we also have two of the best three teams at forcing their opponents into error – will win the game.
The History: Played 31; Penrith 17, North Queensland 14. It's been tough going for the Panthers against the Cowboys in recent years, losing their past four and conceding at least 30 points each time. Their last match, almost exactly a year ago today, ended in a 36-4 rout with utility Ray Thompson crossing for his first career hat-trick, and only tries of the season.
What Are The Odds:
It appears Sportsbet punters aren’t concerned about backing the Cowboys away from home anymore – North Queensland have been well backed to beat the Panthers ($2), both head to head and in handicap betting. However Cowboys 1-12 is the most popular margin. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au.
Match Officials: Referees – Gerard Sutton & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Grant Atkins; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Luke Patten.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live, 7pm (AEST).
The Way We See It: Penrith have done well in spite of their injuries and are at home, but we can't see them continuing it against a side that's won four on the trot and are just about at full-strength. Cowboys to keep their momentum and win by seven, including a trademark Thurston field goal.