If ever there was a chance for the Knights to recover their ailing season, this is it. The Knights host a Cowboys side decimated by injury and suspension and have their own influential skipper returning, giving them a massive lift right when it is needed most.
After winning their opening match of the year the Knights have crashed to four straight defeats and sit in 14th spot on the NRL ladder, just 23 differential points outside the wooden spoon zone.
With both teams below them facing off against each other this weekend, a loss guarantees they will slide at least another spot down into the abyss.
But a win over 10th-placed North Queensland could potentially see them rise as many as four rungs up the ladder, and have them back in striking range of the top eight.
Kurt Gidley returns at fullback to skipper the side, his first game this season after injuring his knee in the trials, which sees Shannon McDonnell miss out.
In other changes, both starting props from last week have been rotated back to the bench, with Ben Cross now slated to start for Daniel Tolar and Evarn Tuimavave due to start for Richard Fa’aoso.
Cameron Ciraldo has also pushed his way into a starting berth in the back row, which sees Steve Simpson move to lock and Mark Taufua start from the bench. Young gun Con Mika has been added as an 18th man.
The Cowboys enter the match after a horror game against the Wests Tigers. While they were in the contest for most of the night, the loss came at a huge cost, with Johnathan Thurston and Aaron Payne succumbing to injury, while Luke O’Donnell’s ill discipline sees him suspended for the next three weeks.
With Thurston out, the Cowboys have called in Grant Rovelli to play five-eighth, shifting young Ray Thompson one spot in to play halfback.
Anthony Watts replaces Aaron Payne at hooker and James Tamou comes into the side at lock for O’Donnell.
Ashley Graham and Will Tupou have also switched positions, with Graham now on the wing and Tupou in the centres. Steve Southern has been left off the bench, leaving the new reserves list with four new faces in Clint Amos, Ty Williams, Manase Manuokafoa and Carl Webb.
Watch out Knights: The Cowboys’ pack is big and mean and is a leading force in dominant tackles this season.
With the addition of more size in Manase Manuokafoa and Carl Webb, the Knights’ forwards better be ready for a tussle up the guts. North Queensland has peeled off 141 dominant tackles so far this season, compared to Newcastle’s 96, and could therefore dominate the ruck speed if the Knights don’t aim up.
They are also averaging 1357 metres gained, compared to the Knights’ 1247. The flip side is with more size comes more opportunity to exploit lateral movement and fatigue. Isaac De Gois should be excited about his prospects to shine in this match.
Watch out Cowboys: It’s one thing to make plenty of dominant tackles but if they are negated by a heap of ineffective and missed tackles, it’s a waste of time.
Pride in defensive performance is paramount to a team’s success at this level, and the Cowboys need to find the desire to be better in this area.
Currently they are ineffective 17.4 per cent of the time, or one in about every six tackles. They have missed 185 tackles already this season – that’s a whopping 37 a game, not good enough for this level.
The Knights are ineffective just 12.1 per cent of the time, leaving a big enough margin to make a difference in this clash if the Cowboys don’t tighten up.
Where it will be won: Class. When the chips are down the cream usually rises to the top and this match should be no different.
Gidley’s return is a huge boost for the Knights, although this match should really belong to Jarrod Mullen. Struggling a little for form so far this season, Mullen should be able to take a stranglehold on this game, ride the momentum shifts, and send his side on the path to victory.
No disrespect to the Cowboys, but the loss of Thurston puts a huge dent in their playmaking stocks… and Payne is gone too! If they are to compete with the Knights it will take a mammoth effort from the youngster Thompson and an even more heroic performance from Willie Tonga out wide.
The Cowboys are going to need their monster pack to shine but with De Gois and Mullen the Knights have two guys who can turn their size against them, should they be up for it.
Having won only once this year and having given away leads on occasions, surely the Knights won’t come in complacent despite the Cowboys’ woes?
The history: Played 22; Knights 14, Cowboys 8. The Knights hold a significant edge on their home turf against the Cowboys, winning nine of 12 matches between the clubs.
It was a close match last season, with the Knights getting away with it in a thriller 32-26 to take their win tally to three in the past four games against the Cowboys.
Conclusion: The Cowboys are higher on the ladder but the Knights are the team to beat here.
North Queensland notoriously struggles without Thurston, and with two more key guys out it looks a bridge too far.
But if the Knights approach this test lightly there is still enough talent for the Cowboys to snatch a win… it’s just unlikely.
Match officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Jeff Younis & Luke Potter; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.
* Statistics: NRL Stats.