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Cowboys v Sea Eagles
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Could it be true? Is this for real? Are the Cowboys finally returning to the form we all expected from them after three years in the wilderness?

Saturday night’s big home game against the Sea Eagles represents the perfect chance for the Cowboys to usher all of us back onto the belief train. After winning in the Sutherland Shire for just the second time in history last weekend, the Cowboys have knocked together three straight wins and remain fourth on the ladder with a decent 5-2 record. They are now on the verge of maintaining a top-four spot for a solid month – if they do it will be the first time since 2007 they have managed such a purple patch of form.

But they take on a Manly side that is also 5-2 and also coming off the back of three straight victories. They sit in fifth spot, only behind the Cowboys on percentages – and they have designs on entering the top four themselves.

After taking care of Cronulla last week the Cowboys have retained the victorious 17 players, only adding youngster James Segeyaro as an 18th man.

The Sea Eagles, who accounted for Penrith and put the final nail in Matt Elliott’s coaching coffin, have once again named Brett Stewart to return at fullback, shifting William Hopoate to the wing and Michael Oldfield to the bench. If Stewart is missing yet again, the club will suffice. Hopoate has been awesome and rookie Oldfield is recording the fewest touches for every try scored for any regular first grade player (16.3). They’re travelling so well they have been able to exempt Tony Williams from bench duty, with Tim Robinson named in his place.

Watch Out Cowboys: The Sea Eagles have plenty of stars in their line-up but one guy to keep an eye on is headgear-wearing bench player Jamie Buhrer; he’s played all seven games so far this season and is creating plenty of inroads, particularly on the left edge. Buhrer is averaging 98 metres a game, has four line-breaks and three tries… not bad for a bench forward who can also fill in at centre.

Danger Sign: Watch for Buhrer to pop up in or around Anthony Watmough in attack. The pair have started a pretty good combination on the left side. He’s also linking well with Kieran Foran, running straight lines from close range. Look for Foran to put him through a gap with a precision pass.

Watch Out Sea Eagles: The Cowboys’ players are adept at breaking the line, with 36 line-breaks for the year so far. This is second only behind Melbourne’s 38 line-breaks.

But perhaps what makes the Cowboys’ figures a little more impressive is the fact they have also added 19 half-breaks. If the side starts to convert mini-break chances into full line-breaks, the scoreboard attendant at Dairy Farmers Stadium might be asking for a pay rise.

The Cowboys have four players in the top 20 for line-breaks who definitely have to be watched closely: Ashley Graham (six), Johnathan Thurston (five), Matt Bowen (four) and Gavin Cooper (four) have been the main destroyers – although only Dallas Johnson, Ashton Sims and Matt Scott have failed to break the line when it comes to regular first graders, so they are dangerous all over the park.

Danger Sign: If a Cowboy enters the backfield in the opening 10 minutes it could be a long night for Manly, particularly if it results in points.

Plays To Watch: Kieran Foran taking on the line (with a Kiwis Test jersey up for grabs after this encounter he’ll be massively involved); Johnathan Thurston reciprocating and showing him how it’s really done; Bowen (and Stewart if he plays) chiming up the middle off offloads; Gavin Cooper (or Scott Bolton) getting a flat pass near the line; Steve Matai hitting hard in defence on the left edge; Steve Matai weaving attacking magic and one-handed offloads on the left edge.

Where It Will Be Won: The form of the centres in this game will be fun to watch – they are likely to have a profound effect on the result.

Cowboys star Willie Tonga shouldn’t be totally left out of Test contention considering he is the incumbent. He goes up against New South Wales hopeful Jamie Lyon and Kiwi hopeful Steve Matai.

Matai played strongly last week against the Panthers (with a try double) but despite a seven-year career span he has only played the Cowboys three times due to injuries and suspensions. He is averaging 144 metres since returning from suspension this year, has five line-breaks, two tries and a try assist plus 19 tackle-breaks – all from three games.

Lyon is running much less this season with an average of just 49 metres. He is yet to break the line in his five games but does have three try assists. Tonga has tallied 110 average metres and three line-breaks, one line-break assist, one try assist and three tries plus 31 tackle-breaks. Antonio Winterstein is still finding his feet at centre for the Cowboys, but club insiders say a breakthrough performance is on the cards sooner rather than later.

The History: Played 15; Cowboys 6, Sea Eagles 9. The teams have split the past eight four wins apiece – although the Sea Eagles have won three of the past four, including the only match-up last season when they prevailed 24-20 in Townsville. (You might remember that game from Johnathan Thurston’s expletive-driven rant, when it appeared Willie Tonga might snatch victory at the death, only to be called back for a forward pass.)

In the eight games played in Townsville the spoils are shared four all – and amazingly both teams have scored exactly 186 points!

Conclusion: Both teams haven’t shown their best stuff, yet both keep winning. Someone is likely to walk away from here with a healthy four-game winning streak and a spot in the top four. The lean, in a very close one, might be to the Cowboys purely as they are at home. Granted the venue hasn’t really been a graveyard in recent seasons, but they are 3-1 there this year and both of the Sea Eagles’ losses came away from home. That might be enough.

Match officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gavin Morris; Touch Judges – Daniel Eastwood & Chris Butler; Video Ref – Paul Simpkins.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.

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