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Cowboys v Raiders
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

The Cowboys come into this one from the lofty perch of fourth on the NRL ladder with three wins after five rounds, including a hometown mauling of the in-form Storm in Round 3, while they were also far too good for the Titans at home last Friday night. 

They could be in even better shape had they finished more strongly against the Eels in between those wins but all in all coach Neil Henry must be pretty content with how his charges are travelling after a dismal 2010.

The story couldn’t be more different for the struggling Raiders. They were blown away by the inconsistent Panthers last week and looked like a team still shattered from their logic-defying, after-the-bell loss to the Titans a week earlier.

As if that weren’t bad enough Terry Campese was ruled out for half the season before 2010 had even finished, inspirational skipper Alan Tongue picked up a long-term injury in Round 1 and star fullback Josh Dugan is injured and has hardly been sighted. Big off-season signing Matt Orford looks a shadow of his former Dally M-winning self while the Green Machine’s high-profile forward pack has also failed to fire.

Their Round 1 win over the Sharks seems a very long time ago following four straight losses, which have seen them slump to 15th on the ladder ahead of only the Titans.

They will go into this one without under-fire halfback Orford, although it is a back injury rather than form that is the reason for his exclusion. He is replaced by exciting young playmaker Sam Williams who impressed in that Round 1 victory and has since been on fire in the Toyota Cup. Joel Thompson, after being ruled out last week following a massive blood loss after the Titans game, returns in the centres at the expense of James Stuart, and Glen Buttriss comes into the starting side at hooker for Travis Waddell who will start from the bench.

For the Cowboys, prop James Tamou will miss a week for breaching the club’s alcohol policy, meaning Ashton Sims will start. Leeson Ah Mau, Isaak Ah Mau and Ricky Thorby have all been added to a five-man bench, while Scott Bolton moves in to start in the back row for Gavin Cooper who has taken the early guilty plea and will miss one match for a dangerous throw.

Cowboys back-rower Glenn Hall will make his 100th appearance in the NRL, while in-form winger Ashley Graham needs one more four-pointer to bring up a half-century of tries for the Cowboys.

Watch Out Cowboys: The boys from Townsville will need to be careful not to underestimate promising young half Sam Williams. Williams didn’t let his lack of size or experience count against him in his Round 1 debut when he racked up a line-break, line-break assist and an incredible three try assists. He has a developed passing and kicking game, and is more than capable of a show-and-go close to the line and slicing through himself.

Williams will relish a second crack at the big time and has already shown he can more than match it with the big boys.

Danger Sign: If nothing else it could be the unexpected that the Cowboys have to watch out for here. Josh McCrone will be the senior playmaker in this game but Williams won’t be afraid to call for the ball on the last if he sees an opportunity.

If Williams does call for the ball in the Cowboys’ red-zone it could be a cross-field kick, a long cut-out pass, or a dart himself before grubbering through for the likes of Blake Ferguson. Whichever it is, the Cowboys will need to make sure they don’t take him lightly.

Watch Out Raiders: If you think Johnathan Thurston looks to be in career-best form – you might be right. Against the Titans ‘JT’ knocked up multiples in line-breaks, line-break assists and try assists, with two of each – the first time since 2006 he has managed this feat. His 159 metres gained (aided by a long-range solo try after he deftly controlled a Scott Prince kick) was his most since 2005.

We’ve mentioned previously that Thurston seems to bring out his best at representative level and can seem frustrated at club level. Part of the problem could be the club’s failure to maintain a halves combination for any length of time. With young five-eighth Ray Thompson now having partnered Thurston for their fifth consecutive game, it marks the Cowboy’s lengthiest halves pairing in three seasons, going past the three games between Thurston and Travis Burns.

With personal form and injury as well as team stability all now in Thurston’s favour, he is showing what he is really capable of.

Also, fullback Matt Bowen loves coming up against the Raiders – he has scored nine tries against the Green Machine, his equal most against any team. 

Danger Sign: When those little freakish plays roll Thurston’s way you know you’re in for a tough night at the office. His trapping of a Prince kick to run 70 metres to score is just one example. It could be a grubber into the posts or a chip-and-chase yielding the perfect bounce, but if those plays start falling Thurston’s way he can pretty much write his own script.

Plays To Watch: Ashley Graham to maintain his try-scoring form with the assistance of floating cut-out passes from Thurston; barnstorming runs from Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Brett White as they look to stake their Origin claims; Ray Thompson to challenge the line while all eyes are on Thurston; Ranging kick-returns from Canberra’s dynamic stand-in fullback Blake Ferguson (hopefully with a tighter ball carry than in recent weeks!).

Where It Will Be Won: In the halves. Clearly the Cowboys look to have the advantage but if the Raiders’ forward pack clicks into gear and gives Williams some room to move he can present an unknown quantity. 

Thurston leads the league for line-break assists (13) – while no Raider has more than two. He is also equal top for try assists (nine) while McCrone’s six is the best for the Raiders. More than two thirds of Thurston’s long kicks find space (19 out of 27) while McCrone hits the turf just once in every four attempts (five out of 20).

Quite simply, the Raiders’ halves will have to lift to take a win away from Townsville. Williams has shown he is capable and against an in-form Thurston they will need to be at their best.
The History: Played 26, Raiders 18, Cowboys 8. While Canberra have a better overall record, things are much more even in games played up north – the Raiders lead 7-6 for matches played at Dairy Farmers Stadium. The Cowboys have a slightly better recent record, winning five of their past eight against Canberra.

Recent matches between these two clubs have been extremely close, up until their last meeting – a 48-4 victory to the Raiders in the national capital.

Conclusion: It’s very hard to tip the Raiders away from home in their current form, while the Cowboys’ recent home form with Thurston at the helm has been scintillating. The home side is definitely the safer option here, and they loom as one of the best bets of the round.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Steve Lyons; Sideline Officials – Paul Holland & David  Munro; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm (viewer’s choice), delayed 9.20pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.