The football gods have smiled on the Wests Tigers this week; just when they desperately need a win they return to Leichhardt Oval with fresh players and come up against a side hit hard by injuries.
Currently sitting in11th place on the NRL ladder Tim Sheens’ side cannot afford any more losses as they are already two wins outside the finals zone and time is running out fast.
They might be coming up against a Cowboys side that is sitting much more comfortably in fifth place on the ladder, but circumstances have shifted the favouritism in this match back to the home side.
They obviously love Leichhardt Oval and play much better there, particularly on Sunday afternoons.
They do not have to sweat on hooker and captain Robbie Farah getting through Origin, after New South Wales selectors left him out of the final game, while the Cowboys have to hope with fingers crossed their skipper Johnathan Thurston gets through unscathed.
And they get to take on the boys from the north without their key players Luke O’Donnell and Aaron Payne, who were both hurt in their last-up win.
The Tigers’ side looks similar to the one that pummelled the Rabbitohs before the bye last week with the only changes coming on the bench. Dene Halatau and Daine Laurie are out with Alan Schirnack and rookie Simon Dwyer coming in.
The Cowboys took a massive hit injury-wise against the Sharks before the bye and must react as soon as possible.
Anthony Watts comes in at hooker to replace Payne, while Steve Southern moves to lock and Carl Webb comes into the back row to cover for O’Donnell.
There are three new faces on an extended bench in Manase Manuokafoa, James Tamou and Travis Burns.
Watch out Wests Tigers: Don’t let the Cowboys get close to your try line as they will almost certainly breach it. The Cowboys have scored more tries from within 10 metres of the line than any other team in the NRL, with a whopping 49 – a massive 14 tries ahead of the next best and 27 more than the Tigers from the same range.
The Tigers are certainly more prolific at scoring tries from 11-20 metres, 21-50 metres and 51+ metres but with the Cowboys good enough to work their way into position often they may well take charge of the match early.
The Tigers’ defence must steel itself and force the Cowboys to chance their arm from distance, something they struggle to pull off.
Watch out Cowboys: The Wests Tigers’ attacking kickers have been given a licence to bring out their short-kicking skills in a bid to split the Cowboys’ defence.
The Cowboys are having trouble successfully defusing chip kicks, grubber kicks and banana kicks so look for Robbie Farah and Benji Marshall, or even John Morris and Tim Moltzen, to take advantage.
North Queensland only successfully negotiate 50 per cent of chip kicks to be ranked 15th, 77 per cent of grubbers to be ranked 12th and 50 per cent of banana kicks to be ranked 11th out of 13 teams (three sides haven’t had to negotiate any banana kicks this season).
Where it will be won: Around the ruck and particularly the battle of the dummy-halves. This spells trouble for the Cowboys as Aaron Payne was a crucial link in their success and we are yet to see how Anthony Watts goes filling his enormous boots.
Watts comes up against it in his first attempt, with a spurned Robbie Farah ready to prove he should have been retained for Origin III. Farah is a brilliant hooker for the modern game. He is tough enough to defend hard, yet still has the energy to both direct play and create chances. He runs for 85 metres a match, kicks for 243 metres, has eight line breaks (seven of which are from dummy-half), 15 line-break assists, five tries and 16 try assists.
Invariably when Farah plays well the Wests Tigers win and that was certainly the case in their last-start hammering of Souths.
Watts has been a fill-in hooker off the bench this season but his stats obviously don’t compare to Farah’s due to his lack of minutes. He does, however, have four line breaks, all from dummy-half, in his seven games. If Watts can ensure the Cowboys’ forwards keep rolling into the right holes and service Thurston when it is appropriate, the visitors will remain in the contest.
It is important to note these two teams are the two most prolific at scoring tries from dummy-half this year. The Cowboys rank tops with nine while the Wests Tigers rank second with eight.
The history: Played 20; Wests Tigers 9, Cowboys 11. The 2005 grand final combatants come together with the Cowboys having gotten the better of the Tigers earlier this season to the tune of 42-14 in Townsville, their biggest ever win over the Tigers. However the Tigers had won the three previous encounters.
There have been three previous games between the two clubs at Leichhardt, with the Wests Tigers winning two of them. The last match at the venue between the sides resulted in the Wests Tigers’ greatest winning margin over the Cowboys.
Should we expect another blow-out? Maybe… it does set up to be a high-scoring affair.
Conclusion: It is important to wait to see if Johnathan Thurston makes it through Origin before picking this game, as without him the Cowboys would have very little hope of getting a result but with him they are still a chance.
However if the Wests Tigers are serious about making a charge for the finals this is a match they simply must win. They should be more desperate and they have the benefit of playing a weakened side at home.
Have faith in them to win here but if they falter, no-one will blame you if you don’t keep said faith in the future.
Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Adam Reid; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Channel Nine – Delayed 4pm; Fox Sports – Delayed 4.30pm Monday.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.