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Cowboys v Warriors
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

This looms as a crunch game for two last-start losers who will be desperate for the competition points to reignite their respective top-four aspirations following comprehensive and, in the case of the visitors, embarrassing defeats last week.

The Warriors must still be shaking their heads at their farcical drop in intensity that allowed the Wests Tigers to steal the result despite trailing by 18 points with less than 20 minutes remaining at a cold and wet Mt Smart Stadium last Sunday. The result – their third loss in a row – saw the Tigers leapfrog the Warriors into sixth place on the ladder, equal on 16 competition points. But a Warriors victory would have seen the NZ-based side occupy sixth place on their own – a whopping four competition points clear of the chasers and just one win away from the Cowboys and Broncos in equal fourth. Yep, their lapse could have huge ramifications down the track.

Meanwhile Neil Henry’s men were given a lesson in attacking football by the Sea Eagles last week. Admittedly they were missing significant contributors, captain Johnathan Thurston and go-forward prop Matthew Scott, but they were never in the hunt. They will be sweating on the duo backing up from Origin, while the Warriors have the luxury of no troops on the representative back-up.

In changes this week, Henry has shifted back-rower Gavin Cooper to centre for Antonio Winterstein, who has been ruled out for the season with a pectoral tear. Michael Morgan moves to the bench for Thurston, Matthew Scott tags Glenn Hall who will sit out a match suspended after his high shot on Glenn Stewart last week, and Scott Bolton starts in the second row to cover Cooper’s shift.

Meanwhile Ivan Cleary has opted to inject more speed out wide, promoting Glen Fisiiahi to the wing; this sees Krisnan Inu shift one man in to centre and shunts Lewis Brown to the bench. Aaron Heremaia returns at hooker at Shaun Berrigan’s expense, and Elijah Taylor drops back to lock to cover for the injured Micheal Luck, with Steve Rapira promoted from the bench to start at second row.

Watch Out Cowboys: It’s hard to believe someone with the stats that Feleti Mateo recorded last week could possibly have trudged from the field on the losing side.

Since his switch across the ditch Mateo has been a constant thorn in the side of oppositions, taking on the line and wielding his trademark one-arm carry, ready to offload even when seemingly contained. He kept the Tigers in two minds making 18 runs for 164 metres, with four offloads and two try assists.

But it’s not just Mateo the Cowboys need to be fearful of. This season they have returned to their entertaining ways of the past, throwing the ball around with menace. Last week’s game saw them join the Dragons as the leading offloading side in 2011; they average 14.3 a game (and Mateo’s 42 are the most in the comp).

Their backs in particular are tough to pin down – after Mateo, Inu (18), Vatuvei (14), Mannering (18), Brown (11) and Locke (9) tally the most offloads.

It will fall to the likes of Cowboys five-eighth Ray Thompson (27 one-on-one tackles, third most in the comp), Tariq Sims (18) and Dallas Johnson (17) to ensure they wrap up the ball carrier quickly without committing too many troops to the play. 

Danger Sign: If Mateo is able to get his arm free and promote the ball a few times in the opening 20 minutes it could be a long night for the home side – especially considering the Cowboys are prone to leaking 12 offloads a game, nearly the Warriors’ average made per game.

Watch Out Warriors: A dry surface is forecast for Dairy Farmers Stadium, which will suit the line-busting attack of the home side. The Cowboys average 4.9 line-breaks a game, the third most in the NRL. Meanwhile the Warriors, for all their offloading brilliance, have problems as a defensive unit, leaking 4.9 line busts a game – the second most by any side.

The Cowboys have four individuals ranked in the top 25 in the NRL for line-breaks, led by Thurston (10), Ashley Graham (eight), Matthew Bowen (seven) and Tariq Sims (six).

One of the unsung heroes of the Cowboys’ campaign to date has been winger Graham; while he’s a no-nonsense player he has given his side a huge platform this year, filling the sort of role Sam Perrett does at the Roosters so well – making big gains from dummy-half. Graham is right up there with the likes of Michael Gordon and Jarryd Hayne for average metres a game (142 – ranked eighth) and he pushes out 17 runs each week. He was a standout in a beaten side last week, making 19 runs for 147 metres with four tackle-breaks, a line-break and a try.

Danger Sign: If the Cowboys get on a roll out of dummy-half and force the Warriors to back-pedal the visitors might find it hard to stay in the contest. The Cowboys make the third-most territory of all sides (1384 metres) while the Warriors miss the second-most tackles in the NRL (an average 37.4 a game).

Plays To Watch: Tariq Sims further enhancing his reputation and push for rookie of the year honours with breaks up the guts; Bowen and Thurston combining to test out the brittle defence of the Warriors’ halves; the Cowboys’ forwards swarming in numbers to put Mateo on his back before he can offload; Mateo contorting to offload even when it appears he’s contained; Kevin Locke’s speed off the mark in the centre of the ruck; the battle of wingers Manu Vatuvei and Ashley Graham, and Kalifa Faifai Loa and Glen Fisiiahi.

Where It Will Be Won: In the ability to bounce back. For the Cowboys, that means Thurston pushing through the pain barrier to take control of the Cowboys’ plays, and Matthew Scott doing the same to ensure the Cowboys make a sufficient dent up front before calling on the backs to add their flair.

For the Warriors, it means putting the dreadful memories from last week behind them and focussing on what they do best – dazzling in attack. Ivan Cleary is a calm man compared to some other NRL coaches but even he would have given his players a rocket for their drop-off last week. Could it be a case of beware the wounded Warrior?

The Cowboys are at their best playing from in front so it’s important the Warriors don’t lose touch early. And, as we all witnessed last week, it’s important they don’t get carried away with themselves and release the pressure should they get early results.

It’s unlikely the Cowboys will find the Warriors easy-beats out wide this week. Last week captain Simon Mannering missed five tackles and was also ineffective on three occasions. They are stats that would hurt the Kiwi international’s pride. Also, halfback Shaun Johnson will be out to make amends for his game-high seven misses that were no small contributor to the stunning turnaround defeat.

The History: Played 27; Warriors 14, Cowboys 13. The honours are shared four games apiece from the past eight clashes between these sides. The Cowboys boast an 8-4 advantage in games in Townsville. The Cowboys inflicted their biggest win over the Warriors (49-12) at Dairy Farmers Stadium in 2007.

Conclusion: The last time these sides met, at Mt Smart Stadium in Round 10 last year, the Warriors raced to a 20-nil lead at halftime, missing just five tackles in the process. While they won the game, the Cowboys gave them a fright, winning the second half 12-4 with the Warriors dropping off four times as many tackles in the second 40. Sound familiar?

There’s no question the Warriors have the talent to win this, but we’re prepared to jump off their bandwagon until they show an ability to stay in the contest for the full 80 minutes.

In particular this game looks a tough assignment when you factor in they haven’t won at Dairy Farmers Stadium since April 2002. That time period encompasses six consecutive losses up north. We’re tipping that will extend to seven after Saturday night.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Steve Chiddy & Michael Wise; Video Ref – Chris Ward.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live – 7.30pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats