Panthers v Cowboys
Centrebet Stadium
Sunday 2pm

It’s been a week of upheaval at the foot of the mountains as the Panthers approach the do-or-die stage of their 2011 premiership campaign. Coach Matthew Elliott has cleaned out his desk, with assistant Steve Georgallis given 10 weeks to prove he is the man for the job from 2012. And new general manager of football Phil Gould has shown everyone at the club he’s deadly serious about implementing cultural change, sacking fringe player Daine Laurie for an alcohol indiscretion and fining Michael Jennings, similarly for an alcohol indiscretion but also because the Origin star ignored medical advice that suggested he brace his leg injury and use crutches. (No, no, no, no, no!)

The Panthers’ competitive 16-12 loss to the Knights in Newcastle last week leaves their season hanging by a thread. They’re sitting 10th on 14 points, trailing four sides on 16 points headed by the sixth-placed Wests Tigers. So they’re not too far off the mark – trouble is, while they and teams ranked 8th through 15th have banked both of their byes for the season, every side ranked from 1st through 6th has the two valuable bye points still to come.

Consequently, no side hovering around this mark can afford to let another get the jump on them.

It’s a tough assignment this week against the fourth-placed Cowboys, especially given star halfback Johnathan Thurston beat his contrary conduct charge (for felling referee Matt Cecchin) at Wednesday night’s judiciary hearing and is free to take his place here (and obviously Origin III).

But Thurston’s team-mate Tariq Sims wasn’t as fortunate; he was found guilty of a Grade 2 Dangerous Contact charge for his ‘choker’ tackle on Krisnan Inu last week and will sit out two games.

The Cowboys recorded a record seventh straight home victory when beating the Warriors 30-10 last week, confirming their credentials as a serious premiership contender. With or without Thurston, they’ll be tough to beat.

Georgallis has rushed back Origin impact player Luke Lewis, who replaces Joseph Paulo at lock. Dayne Weston and Sarafu Fatiaki are the new faces on an 18-man interchange bench, with Masada Iosefa missing due to a hand injury that will see him sidelined until Round 22.

Meanwhile the Cowboys welcome back second-rower Glenn Hall after a week’s suspension. Gavin Cooper was originally listed to partner Ben Jones in the centres but with Sims suspended he’ll likely move back into the second row, with Will Tupou or another to play centre. Their only other change sees Leeson Ah Mau replace older brother Isaak on the bench.

In milestones this week Panther Adrian Purtell plays his 100th NRL game, while with a win Cowboys fullback Matthew Bowen will sing his club’s victory song for the 100th time.

Watch Out Panthers: We said it last week in our preview of the Cowboys-Warriors game and we were right: line-breaks were the difference. That game saw the NRL’s leading line-breakers up against the team that conceded the most busts – this week sees the Cowboys up against the team that leaks the second-most busts.

The Cowboys average five line-breaks, while the Panthers concede five a game.

Last week the Warriors, who concede 5.1 line-breaks a game, led at halftime – but then surrendered four second-half line-breaks and watched in horror as the Cowboys scored 22 unanswered points.

The worry for the Panthers is they have the third-least effective defence in the comp (84.9 per cent), miss the fourth-most tackles (35.3) and concede the most offloads per game by any side (14.4). If they’re not careful the likes of Ashley Graham (10 busts), Kalifa Faifai Loa (seven) and Matthew Bowen (seven) will run riot. Compounding the danger, Bowen’s 81 tackle-breaks are the most by any player.

Danger Sign: Every time Kalifa Faifai Loa gets the ball on the left edge the Panthers need to be on full alert. He’s not just an excellent finisher (eight tries) – he makes things happen, as shown by his incredible mini-grubber-and-regather try assist for Johnathan Thurston last week. He has awesome skills for a big man.

Watch Out Cowboys: The Panthers are a punishing offloading unit, averaging 13.8 each game (third most in the comp). Their best contributor by far is back-rower Trent Waterhouse, whose 38 leaves him just behind Warrior Feleti Mateo as the NRL’s most prolific.

Fullback Lachlan Coote is warming back to the sort of form that had him earmarked for representative honours a few seasons back. Last week against the Knights he made 16 runs for 149 metres and he’ll be offering support around the ruck for the two Lukes, Walsh and Lewis.

The Cowboys need to rush up on hooker Kevin Kingston and halfback Walsh, who control all the ball movement for the home side. Kingston has 1172 receives for the year (fourth most in the comp), while Walsh has tallied 792 (for 12 try assists, fifth most in the comp). That leaves Penrith with two players in the top 14 in the NRL for involvement.

Kingston likes to have a go himself too, and is a great judge of a half-chance.  He’s made just the ninth-most dummy-half runs (78) but leads the NRL for breaks made from the ruck (three). Plus he has two tries and four line-breaks to date (second most by a hooker).

Danger Sign: If Luke Lewis chimes in as a third playmaker (two line-breaks, two line-break assists and a try assist) it will create confusion in the Cowboys’ defensive line.

Plays To Watch: Lachlan Coote’s kick returns; Luke Lewis leaping to pluck bombs from Matt Bowen’s grasp; Trent Waterhouse’s prolific offloads, Petero Civoniceva’s 130-odd metres gained (he’s good for it even before kick-off); Bowen’s damaging left-side sweeps; Thurston’s passes close to the line; Dallas Johnson’s defensive work ethic; Kalifa Faifai Loa’s flamboyant dives to score.

Where It Will Be Won: The battle to slow down the ruck. This game sees two sides that make a multitude of ‘flop’ tackles (players lying in a stack on each other, or coming in late to hold a player on the ground). In fact, only the Warriors make more ‘flops’ than the Cowboys (169) and Panthers (159). To give you some idea of how that ‘stacks’ up with other premiership contenders, the Dragons have made just 76, while the Sea Eagles have made 111.

The danger is that sides can push the boundaries a little too far and it can backfire on them with large numbers of penalties blown against them. That’s certainly been the case for the Panthers this season; despite holding the home ground advantage they’ll need to watch their discipline – they are the most-penalised team in the comp and are certain to become the first side in 2011 to crack triple figures this weekend (currently 98 penalties conceded, or a whopping 7.5 a game).

Slowing down the ruck is a huge advantage against a side with a potent attacking backline like the Cowboys. The trick will be to measure the enthusiasm and not earn too much ire from the refs. Trent Waterhouse has made 23 flops to date, but he also has conceded the fourth-most penalties by any player in the comp (11). He’ll need to be extra careful.

The History: Played 26; Panthers 16, Cowboys 10. The Panthers have won five of the past eight clashes between the sides. The record at Centrebet Stadium stands at six games apiece. The past three games have been decided by eight-point margins (Panthers-Cowboys-Panthers).

Conclusion: 

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Phil Haines; Sideline Officials – Adam & Gavin Reynolds; Video Ref – Bernard Sutton.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 2pm.

* Stats: NRL Stats