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Neil Henry on the Cowboys' line-up

Cowboys v Sea Eagles
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Like an earthquake of seismic proportions, Brett Stewart’s withdrawal from this game is truly enormous.

Without the NSW fullback for the opening four rounds of the competition, Manly looked lost and functionless.

When their Prince returned for the matches against the Wests Tigers and the Rabbitohs – he not only bagged five tries but almost on his own led the team to their first two victories of the season.

However, on the eve of rep team selections, Stewart has been ruled out of football for 12 weeks – needing surgery on his knee.

Is that Manly’s hopes done and dusted for 2009?

You’d hate to think so, and it shouldn’t be, but now Moses has been lost in the red sea, the rest of the clan need to stand up and find their way through the desert on their own.

And yes, there is another team in Saturday night’s battle – the North Queensland Cowboys; their chances of victory have skyrocketed with Stewart’s scratching.

The Cowboys have struggled in the opening weeks of the season but looked to get things back on track last week with a comprehensive win over Cronulla in Adelaide.

Their leader Johnathan Thurston had a monster game against the Sharks and if that’s the form he’s going to show from now on, then North Queensland couldn’t be shorter-priced favourites to win this game on home soil in Townsville.

Watch out Cowboys: As good as Brett Stewart has been in recent weeks, Jamie Lyon has run a close second as Manly’s best player. ‘Killer’ is looking strong and dangerous, and especially now with Stewart out of the picture – look for him to get the ball in his hands more frequently.

North Queensland is far from settled in the outside backs this season, and Lyon will pose questions all night down the right-hand side of the field. Don’t be surprised if he spends some time at five-eighth as well, helping out in the ball-playing department. He’s made nine line breaks and scored more tries (five) than any other centre in the competition.

Watch out Sea Eagles: Manly has been guilty of ill-discipline and a high error count so far this season, and if that continues in the sticky Townsville conditions, then watch out.

Anthony Watmough has conceded nine penalties already this year, while Brent Kite and Chris Bailey have conceded six and Josh Perry five on his own. You can’t afford to give the likes of Thurston and Matt Bowen too many chances in good field position.

Many have been critical of Thurston’s form to start the season but he is a champion player and champion players answer the call. JT will have his hands on the ball all night and there’s enough attacking players in the Cowboys’ line-up that the Sea Eagles will need to be forever vigilant.

Despite his alleged slow start to the season, Thurston is third on the list of halfbacks with try assists (five) and line-break assists (three) this season. It’s clear JT is the man with the ball in his hands most often.

Where it will be won: This match will be won with defence. The North Queenslanders have struggled this season when other teams have muscled up to them at Dairy Farmers – and Manly need to do the same and get in their face and hustle them. Anthony Watmough and Glenn Stewart in particular need to pressure JT all night, not give him time and try to stifle the play before it progresses.

Additionally, the Cowboys need to make improvements in their ‘D’. Usually North Queensland can rely on their attack to win games, but at the moment while it isn’t quite clicking, they need to lift their tackling. Their big forwards around the middle of the ruck like Carl Webb, Antonio Kaufusi and Shane Tronc need to react quicker and those around them need to work harder.

Johnathan Thurston and Travis Burns, too, need to tighten up in defence. Thurston has missed 28 tackles so far this season and Burns has fallen off 25.

Secondly, both teams need to execute their plays more effectively. Attacking moves have been breaking down at the final stages and whoever can get this right will go a long way towards winning the match.

There’s no point ignoring the fact that Brett Stewart’s no-show has a massive effect on this game. Manly need to forget the fact he’s gone and carry on without him as if nothing’s changed.

North Queensland need to also put out of their minds that they have any kind of advantage, as any complacency on their part will see Manly come to their house and steal the money.

History: Played 13; Sea Eagles 8, Cowboys 5. At Dairy Farmers the Sea Eagles have a solid record – both teams have won three matches each from their six games in Townsville.

Conclusion: Every match in the NRL now seems important – but this game really is must-win for both teams. Purely as a confidence-booster, the two points here are vital.

North Queensland need two consecutive wins to kick-start their season, and losing to a Brett Stewart-less Manly side could shatter their confidence. Winning at home is also important for them – Dairy Farmers Stadium is the team’s greatest weapon and they can’t afford to let their record there slip.

For the Sea Eagles, you would think this match will showcase the true character of this team. With their leading man gone, what can Manly do? A win in the far north will instil them with some vital self-belief.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – Ricky McFarlane & Adam Reid; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
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