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Knights v Cowboys
Ausgrid Stadium
Monday 7pm

Monday Night Football keeps dishing up the big games in recent weeks, with Round 18 set to end on a massive high in Newcastle.

The Knights have been finding ways to get the job done of late and have pushed themselves up into sixth on the NRL ladder, giving them a massive hope of creating some havoc come finals time.

The Novocastrians are the excitement team of the competition right now – their past seven games have been decided by single figures with the past three resulting in wins over Penrith, the Roosters and then the Dragons in Wollongong. However, the question remains as to whether they can compete at the same intensity against a top-four side with all of their stars on board after last week’s win came against a severely depleted St George Illawarra.

Of course the Cowboys suffered a major blow in Origin III when their biggest star Johnathan Thurston suffered a bad knee injury that will sideline him for at least five weeks… possibly longer depending on the results of scans. Neil Henry will be hoping prop Matthew Scott is fit to back up. They’ve also lost centre Willie Tonga who was slated to make his return but will be kept in cotton wool for another week at least.

Meanwhile the Knights expect Kurt Gidley and Akuila Uate to take the field.

Also, the Knights welcome back halfback Jarrod Mullen, whose selection pushes in-form youngster Ryan Stig to the bench. Gidley is due to return at five-eighth meaning Tyrone Roberts also shifts to the reserves.

Keith Lulia makes way from the centres for the return of Adam MacDougall and Pater Mata’utia will vacate his spot on the wing for Uate.

Hooker Isaac De Gois is out injured with Matt Hilder to play dummy-half and Evarn Tuimavave back at prop pushing Dan Tolar to the bench.

The Cowboys come in fresh off the bye, still smarting from a last-start loss to Penrith. They remain in fourth spot but know a loss here would see them fall back to fifth thanks to a Broncos bye.

With Willie Tonga held back Ben Jones will rejoin the squad, while Will Tupou will return to the other centre position after a stint at lock. Michael Morgan is expected to slot in for Thurston.

Gavin Cooper will move back into the second row and Dallas Johnson shifts back to lock.

James Tamou has earned a starting berth at prop, with Leeson Ah Mau back to the bench – which interestingly has former Knight and mid-season transfer Cory Paterson added as an 18th man.

Watch Out Knights: The Cowboys will be heading left – and they are coming hard. With 34 tries on the left side of the field the Cowboys are this season’s ‘Dragons’ when it comes to sending the ball left. The Knights have leaked 17 tries on this side of the field with 12 of them coming on the left sideline. This ranks them as the third worst defensive side in the NRL in this area.

Danger Sign: Beware of a few back-to-back sneaky raids down the right side because it invariably means Thurston is setting up a long left shift. Winger Kalifa Faifai Loa must be watched. The former Knights Toyota Cup star has played his former club once (for the Dragons last year) and finished with a hat-trick of tries plus 265 metres, 11 tackle-breaks, four offloads and two line-breaks.

Watch Out Cowboys: Someone has told Adam MacDougall he is one of only a few Knights players yet to make a line-break this season – and the only back. Granted he has only played two matches but the former rep centre is not very happy about the figures and with his days as a professional footballer running out it’s not the way he wants to finish up.

Look for the ‘Mad Dog’ to be heavily involved in both attack and defence as he strives to take the young team towards the finals. He will relish the opportunity to jam the Cowboys’ centres and will be practically daring Thurston to give them the ball.

Danger Sign: While there are plenty of big guns for the Cowboys to watch closely, some numbers have surfaced to suggest Chris Houston needs a shadow. Houston has faced the Cowboys five times as a Knight for four wins and three tries. He has now won 18 of his 21 appearances at Ausgrid Stadium against all-comers, which currently features a nine-match unbeaten stretch in night fixtures.

Plays To Watch: The show-’n’-go from Mullen; Uate’s dummy-half runs; Steve Southern’s rib shots into old mates; Cory Paterson likewise if given a chance; both fullbacks chiming in through the middle sniffing out inside-ball plays (with an increased workload expected from Matt Bowen in Thurston’s absence).

Where It Will Be Won: Attack – some great statistics have been uncovered by NRL Stats… the Knights have scored on average 29 points against North Queensland during the past four seasons but the Cowboys are currently the team with the greatest improvement in points scored from last season (33 per cent).

The bottom line is the likes of Gidley and also the returning Mullen might be throwing more ‘darts’ than usual. If the defence of both teams is a little off, this will result in a high-scoring affair but if they are up to the task it will then come down to one big play… Gidley and Bowen are the men. (Gidley requires just two more points for 900 in his career. )

The History: Played 25; Knights 16, Cowboys 9. Newcastle took care of the Cowboys earlier this year with a 34-22 win in Townsville to make it five wins from the past seven games over the boys from up north. In 13 matches against the Cowboys at Ausgrid Stadium the Knights have won 10. The last win for the Cowboys in Newcastle was back in 2007.  The Knights are on the verge of winning four games in a row – something they haven’t achieved since May 2006.

Conclusion: It’s going to be tough for the Cowboys without Thurston, not just in this game but also for the next month and, depending on how bad his knee injury is, possibly the rest of the year. How they fare here and in the next few weeks could determine their chances of finishing in the top four. The Cowboys would have been slight favourites with Thurston on the field but without him the Knights should be too strong.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Tony De Las Heras; Touch Judges – Paul Holland & Ricky MacFarlane; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.