Cowboys v Panthers Preview

Cowboys v Panthers
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday, 8:30pm

They start the games at 8:30pm up in Townsville to escape the sapping heat. But if Round 1 is anything to go by, it doesn’t matter what time the Cowboys choose to face the Panthers... they’re in for a toasting against a hot team on the rise.

If Penrith fly into Townsville airport in the same mood they kicked the year off in, Neil Henry could quickly find himself in the fire at 0-2, and the sound of cracking whips will be bellowing in the stands. 

His troops certainly would’ve gotten a lashing in the dressing rooms after a 20-0 first-half shut-out against the Broncos last Saturday. Perennially the Queensland bridesmaids, the Cowboys went in as favourites but were ambushed in the opening stanza by a bunch of kids from Brisbane. They saved face in the second half but wouldn’t have masked a sluggish 30-24 loss against a team that had more youngsters than most childcare centres.  

In contrast, Penrith were on the other end of their own scintillating first-half shut-out of the Raiders. Their 22-0 half-time lead was cut to 22-16 with 20 minutes to go but a 95-metre intercept try to former Canberra flyer Adrian Purtell snuffed any thoughts of a miracle comeback.

Matt Bowen (knee) is still out for the Cowboys; one can only imagine what their attack would be like if he could get on the end of any of their six line-breaks last week.

For the Panthers, Wade Graham (shoulder) is still a couple of weeks away from challenging Travis Burns for the five-eighth spot, while Maurice Blair (shoulder), Jarrod Sammut (ankle) and Daine Laurie (foot) are still to taste any football in 2010.

Watch out Cowboys: Four of Penrith’s six tries last week were scored beyond the 20-metre line, which is where the red light needs to be for the Cowboys. Despite Jennings’ move to the right flank, they were still at their best on the left, where Frank Pritchard monstered the Raiders’ defence. The New Zealand international’s destructive performance (131 metres, two try assists, six tackle-breaks and four offloads) left fans begging for a consistent season.
 
Watch out Panthers: Willie Tonga showed why he’s still Queensland representative quality, with a five-star performance that included 143 metres gained, three line-breaks and eight tackle busts. His match-up with NSW centre Michael Jennings will be something.
 
Where it will be won: The Cowboys (46) and the Panthers (41) topped the missed tackles count after Round 1 and with hookers like Aaron Payne and Kevin Kingston, both teams will be looking to thrive on some quick play-the-balls.

Whoever wins the battle here will put their halves on the front foot, giving strike players like Tonga and Jennings the room they need to move.

The history: Played 25; Penrith 15, North Queensland 9, Drawn 1. The Panthers have won four of the past five games against the Cowboys, with three of them at Dairy Farmers. Their last encounter two years ago produced a golden point thriller: Michael Jennings looked to have sealed the game with a try in the 76th minute before Ashley Graham tied things up in the last minute to send the game into overtime. But Jarrod Sammut won the game 19-18 for the visitors with his third attempt at a field-goal finally sailing over, breaking the hearts of the home fans.

Conclusion: North Queensland missed the finals through some erratic play in 2009, and nothing seems to have changed for them after week one.

The Panthers, on the other hand, showed a confidence in their win against the Raiders and will head into this as favourites.

Still, the home ground should be an advantage for the Cowboys, but how much of an advantage remains to be seen. It’ll be close, but going on last week’s performances alone, the Panthers have the edge in this one.

Match officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Chris James; Sideline officials – Luke Phillips & Grant Atkins; Video Re – Phil Cooley.

Televised:  Fox Sports 2 – Delayed from 9:20pm (AEDT)