Cowboys v Panthers Preview

Panthers v Cowboys
CUA Stadium
Friday, 7:30pm

Surely they can’t lose this one? If the second-placed Panthers can’t conjure a win over the Cowboys this week, then they might as well make plans for Mad Monday, because they’d clearly be the most out-of-form team in the top eight.

Most pundits have already written off Penrith’s premiership credentials, but should the mountain men fail again this week, then the players themselves might begin questioning their own merits.

Coach Matt Elliott – who walked out of the coach’s box before fulltime last week – and his team straggled home with their tails between their legs following an error-riddled affair in Melbourne, and were lucky to hold onto their lofty standing on the ladder. Their third loss in a row came after dropping a 22-0 lead over the Eels, and failing to defeat the Warriors when they had 59 tackles in the opposition hot zone.

Still, other than the 15th-placed Sharks, there comes no better opportunity to boost their confidence than against another outfit out of finals contention in the Cowboys.

Sure, North Queensland managed to secure two points with a golden-point 28-24 victory against an equally horrible Newcastle side, but there’s no doubting who the favourites are in this contest. Prior to their last-start win, the Cowboys had lost their previous four games and, as mentioned, needed extra time to walk away with the honours last week.

Penrith welcome the return of key playmakers Luke Walsh and Luke Lewis from injury this week, which means Wade Graham and Nathan Smith get shifted to the bench, while Nigel Plum loses his spot altogether.

Cowboys coach Neil Henry has decided to drop Grant Rovelli and give the reborn Arana Taumata his first shot in his preferred position of five-eighth, which gives Ty Williams another opportunity in the backline.

Watch out Panthers: They might have the second best attack in the competition, but the Panthers would do well to take some lessons from the Cowboys, who rank fifth in the league for line-breaks (86), while the Panthers are dead last (53).

North Queensland’s biggest strike weapons are Maroons representative Willie Tonga (16 line-breaks) and under-rated second-rower Scott Bolton (13).

In fact, the Panthers would do well to steer clear of Bolton entirely. The skilled forward is somewhat of a defensive game-changer for the visitors, leading the team in dominant tackles (49) and one-on-one tackles (42).

The re-invigorated and off-contract Willie Mason also ranks high up in those categories, amassing 42 and 42 counts respectively.

Watch out Cowboys:
Storm coach Craig Bellamy praised the Panthers’ physical strength after last week’s clash, and against one of the worst defensive teams in the competition, the Panthers could rack up some serious points on Friday night.

The Cowboys concede 1375 metres a game (fourth most) and face a team ranked sixth for metres gained.

But that’s not the worst of it. The Cowboys are last in the competition in line-breaks (98) and tries conceded (89), which could spell trouble against the home side, who are second in total tries scored (78).

It would also be remiss of us to not point out that the Cowboys have defused just 67 per cent of bombs this year, making them the fourth worst side in the NRL.
 
Where it will be won:
Discipline. Alongside the Knights, the Cowboys have made the most errors this year (249), while the Panthers have been the second-most penalised team in the competition (112).

Johnathon Thurston (24 errors), Ashley Graham (17) and Bolton (19) are the main culprits for the away side, while Lewis (15 penalties), Kevin Kingston (11) and Trent Waterhouse (10) will need to be on their best behavior.

The history: Played 25; Panthers 15, Cowboys 10. Penrith might hold the overall lead over their counterparts, but the Cowboys hold the ledger at CUA, winning six of their 11 games played.

This match-up is the first at CUA in three years, but Cowboys fans will have no problems remembering one victory in 1998, when North Queensland’s unbelievable comeback from a 26-0 deficit still ranks as the biggest comeback of all time.  

Conclusion: Again, surely they can’t lose this one? All of the Panthers’ good work in 2010 can become unstuck with a confidence-sapping loss to the lowly Cowboys.

But if they win, they stay on track for a top-two finish.

Match officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Tony De Les Heras; Sideline officials – David Abood & Ricky McFarlane; Video referee – Steve Clark.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed 1am.