Matt Harris, Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Wests Tigers v Cowboys
Campbelltown Sports Stadium
It's hard to tell whether the Wests Tigers are the real deal or just over-achieving. Heavy losses to the Dragons and the Warriors in Rounds 1 and 4 respectively have seemingly been forgotten given their strong wins over the Titans, Rabbitohs and Sea Eagles.
After entertaining Manly last Sunday at the historic surrounds of Leichhardt Oval for NRL Heritage Round, the Wests Tigers host the inconsistent Cowboys at another of their suburban grounds, Campbelltown Sports Stadium.
The return to Leichhardt spurred the Tigers to an impressive 34-18 decision over the disappointing Sea Eagles in a game which was effectively over by half-time. Veteran five-eighth Braith Anasta went as far to say that the current Tigers pack is one of the best he's played with after they outmuscled Manly's highly fancied forwards.
Four Tigers churned out more than 100 running metres against the silvertails with Aaron Woods (144 metres), Martin Taupau (143m), James Gavet (116m) and winger Pat Richards (105m) all making plenty of territory across the sodden Leichhardt surface. Other notable contributors towards the Tigers' trouncing of Manly were Keith Galloway (95m) and Bodene Thompson (89m).
Unfortunately for the Tigers, they'll go into the Cowboys clash minus Anasta, who has accepted a one-match suspension (the first of his 15-season career) for a shoulder charge on Manly's David Williams. They are also without promising 21-year-old fullback James Tedesco, who looks likely to miss at least six weeks (and possibly nine) with ankle ligament damage. This will leave coach Mick Potter with a few selection headaches as he looks to patch together a backline for Saturday night's shootout.
The Cowboys returned to the winners' circle after a near-flawless first-half display facilitated their 28-2 victory over Newcastle on Monday night. Prior to their 26-point win over the Knights, North Queensland had struggled with the one win in Round 1 at home against the Raiders followed by three straight losses. Newcastle were ordinary in Townsville so judging whether the Cowboys have turned a corner form-wise remains to be seen. One positive for the Cowboys is that their three losses have been by four points or less so the damage to their points-differential has been minimal.
The Tigers have had the wood over the Cowboys in eight of the past 11 clashes, although the last time these sides met in Round 26 last year, the Cowboys flogged Wests Tigers by 28 points up north. In the last clash at Campbelltown in Round 12, 2012, the home side came up trumps by eight points. Expect a similar slender margin of victory for either side this time around.
In team news the Cowboys have named the same 17 that took on the Knights while the Tigers have named former Panther pivot Blake Austin at five-eighth and rookie fullback Kurtis Rowe to replace Tedesco. Despite Rowe being an unknown quantity, the 20-year-old has dominated the Holden Cup in the past two seasons, scoring an astonishing 38 tries in 45 games.
Watch Out Tigers: Michael Morgan is starting to look dangerous as a makeshift fullback. Thrown into the deep end at the beginning of the season due to a season-ending ACL injury to new recruit Lachlan Coote, Morgan started 2014 cautiously but has now begun to hit his straps. Before his outstanding display against the Novocastrians, Morgan had averaged 10 runs per match, 96 run metres and had only scored one try and made three try assists. Against the Knights he improved his averages, making 124 run metres from 12 runs, as well as scoring two tries and making a try assist, all of which will give the 22-year-old a further confidence boost heading into the Tigers clash.
Watch Out Cowboys: Tigers' skipper Robbie Farah shone brightly for his side in the dreary conditions at Leichhardt on Sunday. The way he directs the Tigers forward pack around the park ensures that the young forwards extract as many metres as possible through the centre, allowing attacking players such as Farah more room to weave their magic at the back-end of their sets.
Farah has been crucial in the Tigers' three wins so far this season, but it was in the wet against the Sea Eagles where the 30-year-old really displayed his leadership qualities. The Origin hooker peeled off 38 tackles against Manly, however his best work was with the ball, as he scored a try from a clever grubber kick, set up another try and made 91 run metres from 12 darts from dummy-half. Now without the suspended Anasta for the Cowboys clash, expect Farah to take more responsibility with ball in hand as he looks to take the pressure off Brooks and Austin, who only have 21 NRL games between them.
Plays To Watch: Expect the Cowboys to run their plays down the right to target the Tigers left edge of Chris Lawrence and Pat Richards. Out of the 23 tries the Tigers have conceded this season, nine of them have been down the flank patrolled by 25-year-old Lawrence and veteran 32-year-old winger Richards. The Tigers pair will be matching up against Brent Tate and Antonio Winterstein who have only scored three tries between them this year, but with Johnathan Thurston's propensity to run the Cowboys' set plays down the right, Tate and Winterstein are likely to receive the ball more than the Cowboys other centre and winger combination of Kane Linnet and Matthew Wright.
Where It Will Be Won: The halves. The loss of Anasta is a huge blow for the Tigers. His leadership qualities cannot be replaced overnight and his exclusion puts further pressure on Robbie Farah to lead the team around the park. Tigers halfback Luke Brooks has only six NRL games behind him and Austin has played 15 games for the Panthers, but is yet to debut for the Tigers.
Meanwhile on the other side of the field the Cowboys have Robert Lui and some bloke with the surname of Thurston, who is supposedly a decent player (between you and me the best player in the world right now). If you slow down 'JT' (because stopping him is near impossible), you'll go a long way to winning against the Cowboys. You can run all the heavy traffic you like at him, but JT will always pick himself up, dust himself off and prepare his troops for another assault on the opposition's line.
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The History: Played 28; Wests Tigers 15, Cowboys 13. In 28 encounters between these two teams just 23 points separate them; 14 of them attributed to their most famous meeting when the Tigers got the better of the Cowboys in the 2005 Grand Final to the tune of 30-16. Although the Cowboys have been regular finals attendees in recent years their record against the Tigers is horrendous; just three wins from their past 12 attempts. The last time the Cowboys tasted success at Campbelltown was way back in Round 25, 2004, with Pat Richards the only surviving member of either of those teams to be lining up again on Saturday night.
What Are The Odds: Early money at Sportsbet.com.au is for the Tigers who firm from $2.10 into $1.98 but they remain outsiders to the Cowboys, who are at $1.80. Money so far is flowing two to one for the Tigers. With Tedesco injury, we anticipate late support for the Cowboys despite it being an away game for them.
Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Morris & Gavin Reynolds; Touch Judges – Dan Eastwood & Chris Sutton; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Andrew Dunemann.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
The Way We See It: If the Tigers had Tedesco and Anasta on deck you'd back them to get the job done at Campbelltown. But they don't and with increased pressure on the Tigers' young halves, it'll be up to their young forward pack to outmuscle North Queensland and their imposing pack – which is no easy feat. If the Tigers' pack doesn't create enough room for Brooks and Austin to work with, they'll be in for a long night. With the Cowboys seemingly back in their groove after thumping the Knights and with coach Paul Green having the luxury of naming the same 17, it's the Cowboys to edge the Tigers in a close encounter. Cowboys by six points.