Cowboys v Roosters
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Don’t expect any representative period lapses from North Queensland this week: for the first time in four years former Maroons assistant coach Neil Henry has remained in Townsville to help his fourth-placed charges maintain a full gallop towards an elusive maiden premiership.

The Cowboys have silenced their critics through the first half of 2011, showing unprecedented defensive starch to go with their documented attacking flair. They’re averaging 24 points in attack (second behind the Storm) and are conceding the sixth-fewest points (18). And importantly they’ve built a real fortress at Dairy Farmers Stadium, having not lost at home in five outings since their Round 2 defeat to the Knights.

They’ve won five of their past six, and count among their scalps this season the Broncos, Storm and Sea Eagles; the only high flyer they haven’t toppled are the Dragons, who triumphed 22-6 in Round 9 – although that game was closer than the scoreline suggests.

This week they’ve named the same line-up that disposed of the Eels a fortnight ago before the bye, with Leeson Ah Mau added as 18th man on an extended bench. They’re banking on Johnathan Thurston, Matthew Scott and Willie Tonga being fit to back up from Origin.

It’s a milestone game for winger Ashley Graham who plays his 150th NRL game.

Meanwhile the Roosters ground out a crucial win against the Knights last week to give their fans a glimmer of hope about their chances of semi-finals football. Despite the victory the out-of-form tri-colours languish in 13th place. However, they’ll be aware they were one of just two teams last year (the other was the Raiders) to come from outside the top eight at this stage of the season to make the September playoffs – and they went all the way to the grand final. But they have a massive job ahead; indeed they need to create history, as they’ve never made a finals series with so few wins (three) through the opening 11 rounds of a season.

Last year’s turnaround was largely due to Todd Carney catching lightning in a bottle and carrying it through to October. If the Roosters are to re-emerge as a finals force, he needs to be the trigger again.

Brian Smith has some key personnel changes this week. Mitchell Pearce is slated to back up from Origin at halfback, which allows Carney to revert to his preferred five-eighth position. This in turn shunts skipper Braith Anasta to the second row, which pushes Aidan Guerra to lock in place of Willie Mataka. Lama Tasi makes way for Maroons forward Nate Myles at prop while Tom Symonds return from injury on the bench.

It’s a reflective night for the Cowboys, who will dedicate the game to former club player Sam Faust, who died from leukaemia last Monday aged just 28.

Watch Out Cowboys: Will the real Todd Carney and Shaun Kenny-Dowall please stand up? If they do, the Cowboys could be in all sorts of bother. The pair’s stats are way down on last year when they terrorised oppositions.

Last year ‘SKD’ tallied 156 tackle-breaks to rank second in the NRL. This year he has 53 approaching the season midpoint – that’s still good enough for fifth in the NRL but just goes to show the breakout year he had in 2010. And last year he ranked fourth for line-breaks with 19; this year he has just four.

But the Kiwi has fond memories of his last outing in Townsville. In the Roosters’ 18-8 win in Round 26 last year he made a game-high 12 tackle-breaks, plus two line-breaks and two offloads to be a constant menace.

Carney is way off the pace too. Line-breaks were a strength last year (17 made). This year he’s managed just four. And he has just one try assist and one line-break assist.

Elsewhere, it seems the penny has dropped for towering Jared ‘Hollywood’ Waerea-Hargreaves – he really upped his involvement last week, with a personal-high 15 runs and 112 metres gained.

Danger Sign: If Carney and Kenny-Dowall can inspire the Roosters to early points they may go on with the job. Currently the tricolours are averaging their fewest points per game (15.7) since 1994. It can’t stay that way, can it?

Watch Out Roosters: The Cowboys’ back three Matthew Bowen, Ashley Graham and Kalifa Faifai Loa have provided plenty of attack, with 15 tries between them.

Bowen has made the most kick-return metres (638) and ranks second for tackle-breaks with 55. He’s also chimed in with five try assists.

Graham leads all backs for hit-ups with 173 (ranked fourth overall) and his 1449 running metres ranks him sixth in the NRL.

Faifai Loa continues to turn heads with his explosive speed and ability to bust tackles (42 from eight games) and finish off plays (four tries).

Danger Sign: If the Cowboys’ passes stick from the outset the Roosters could be in for a long night – over the past month the Cowboys have averaged the fewest errors per game (7.3) for the most line-breaks (5.7) of any team.

Plays To Watch: Anthony Minichiello’s terrier-like support play (he has 71, ranked second); Kenny-Dowall looking to bust loose down the right edge; Carney taking on the line; Pearce’s long left-to-right face balls; Thurston’s show-and-go; Matthew Bowen busting the line; Matthew Scott bending holes in the Roosters up-the-guts defence; Dallas Johnson tackling to a standstill (averages 46.6 to rank No.1 among players with five games or more).

Where It Will Be Won: In the halves. Injury permitting, Thurston and Pearce will be squaring off for the second time in 72 hours and they hold the key to their team’s chances.

Thurston seems to have relaxed a little in his attitude since the appointment of Matthew Scott as co-captain and it’s reflected in his form. Indeed victory here would represent the first time he’s won six on the trot at home. And doesn’t he love Dairy Farmers Stadium? Since 2008 he’s played 35 games at home for a whopping 38 line-break assists, 34 try assists and 14 tries.

He’s in scintillating form in 2011, topping the NRL for points (96), line-break assists (18) and try assists (14). He’s scored six tries – and his next will be his 50th for the Cowboys.

Meanwhile, Pearce enjoys a 50 per cent winning record from his six games against the Cowboys, with two wins at Dairy Farmers Stadium. He’s a fair way off his stats from 2010 (just seven try assists and eight line-break assists so far) but that’s largely due to the team’s decline.

Last year Carney and Pearce combined for 32 line-break assists and 27 try assists. So far this year they’ve tallied a meagre eight try assists and nine line-break assists.

There’s no question the Roosters’ halves need to step up.

The History: Played 26; Roosters 20, Cowboys 6. The honours are shared four games apiece from the past eight encounters although the Cowboys have won three of the past four. However, the Roosters were solid 18-8 winners the last time they squared up in Townsville.

Conclusion: The Roosters may have scraped home last week but beating the Cowboys on their patch looks a tall order. The visitors are certainly capable of a blow-out result but this Cowboys unit looks the real deal in 2011 and we think it unlikely they’ll misfire.

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Adam Devcich; Sideline Officials – David Abood & Chris Butler; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.