Dairy Farmers Stadium
Sixth takes on seventh on Saturday night when the Panthers travel north to take on the Cowboys in what shapes as a crucial game for both sides in their run to September.
North Queensland will look to put last Sunday’s disappointing 34-14 loss to the Wests Tigers behind them when they aim for a seventh-straight win at Dairy Farmers. With only two more home games remaining after this week, the two points on offer against the Panthers will be vital in ensuring a top-eight finish.
While the Cowboys hold a handy +94 points differential to lead three other teams from sixth to ninth sitting on 22 points, the Panthers are clinging onto seventh spot with a +18 difference, with Manly and the Broncos just out of the eight.
The Panthers hope they can build on an encouraging 27-14 triumph against the Raiders last Saturday night as they continue to fight without hardened campaigners Petero Civoniceva, Luke Lewis and Frank Pritchard.
It remains to be seen, however, whether the likes of Michael Jennings, Trent Waterhouse and Luke Walsh will be enough to help their team win enough games to claw into the finals.
Watch out Cowboys: The NRL premiership is the only challenge left for the world’s best halfback Johnathan Thurston. If the Cowboys are to contest the Bulldogs and the Dragons for this year’s crown, Thurston will have to bring his game – and his team – to a whole new level. Starting here.
The 26-year-old leads the competition in line-break assists (18) and is equal fourth in try assists (16). But more will be expected of the Australian and Queensland representative, who has the ability to make the game-winning play.
Watch out Panthers: After his side conceded 70 points in their previous two games, Penrith coach Matt Elliott was pleased to see the Raiders cross the line just three times last week.
But the Panthers will have to put in another solid defensive display against the Cowboys, who along with the Bulldogs, have scored more points than other team this year (416).
Penrith have the worst defensive record of any team in the top eight (361), and will need to improve if they are to be considered as a genuine premiership threat.
Where it will be won: In the battle for ascendancy between the Cowboys’ front row and the Panthers’ second row – even without Kangaroos representatives Civoniceva and O’Donnell, both sides feature some hard-working big men.
North Queensland’s Matthew Scott and Shane Tronc form one of the best front-row pairings in the competition, averaging 123 metres and 119 metres a game respectively. Tronc has 25 offloads this year to go with his 28 tackles a game.
On the flipside, the Panthers will be relying heavily on their back-row duo of Trent Waterhouse and former Titan Gavin Cooper to make up for the loss of Civoniceva and Pritchard. The pair combine for almost 200 metres and 60 tackles a game, with Waterhouse offloading 23 times this year and Cooper 19. Their strength and value lie in their fitness, with the two averaging around 70 minutes a game each.
The history: Played 23; Cowboys 9, Panthers 14. The honours are even four games apiece from their past eight clashes although the Panthers have won three of the past four, including a nail-biting one-point victory in Townsville last year. In fact, Dairy Farmers Stadium will hold no fears for the visitors who have won eight of the 11 games played there between these combatants.
Conclusion: The team that finishes the strongest could get the points. The Cowboys lead the NRL in points scored in the last 20 minutes (8.8), while the Panthers aren’t too bad either (6.6). Look for playmakers Johnathan Thurston and Luke Walsh to provide the clutch plays in the latter stages of the match, with speedsters Jennings, Brad Tighe, John Williams and Matt Bowen prominent around the ruck.
If the game does go down to the wire, goal-kicking may become a huge factor – and there aren’t many better sharpshooters in the NRL than Thurston and Penrith’s Michael Gordon. Gordon returned from injury last week to nail five from five, taking his tally to 30 from 32 this year, while Thurston has been proficient, kicking 59 from 69 attempts (85 per cent).
With so much at stake, expect the result of this game to be just like last year’s – won 19-18 in extra time by the Panthers.
The Panthers were valiant last week without their star players, but faced a below-par Raiders outfit. The men in black meet a bigger challenge this week in the form of the Cowboys, who should prevail through the class of Thurston. Cowboys by two points.
.Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Matt Cecchin; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & Gavin Reynolds; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats.