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Cowboys v Wests Tigers
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

One week down and safely navigated without Johnathan Thurston… maybe only four or five to go: that’s the mantra up north as the Cowboys look to cling to their crucial top-four ranking heading into the business end of the season.

Spearheaded by a rampaging Matthew Bowen, the Cowboys blindsided the Knights in Newcastle last Monday night but know they’ll need a similar performance at home this week against a Wests Tigers side bound to be revved up and on task following some lacklustre recent form.

The Cowboys have now won five from seven – and although Thurston remains sidelined they get a huge boost this week with the inclusion of Brent Tate, Tariq Sims and Aaron Payne. Tate makes his season debut after recovering from a serious knee injury, Sims returns after serving a two-week suspension and Payne is back after being a late withdrawal last week.

Meanwhile the Wests Tigers must be fast approaching panic stations; their surprise defeat at the hands of Parramatta – one of the leading disappointments of 2011 – was their third in succession and their fifth from their past eight games. Their drop-off in form coincides with announcements of widespread player movement, the most recent being fullback Tim Moltzen to the Dragons (let out of the bag on the eve of last week’s game). They’ve now dropped out of the top eight (9th) and are ranked second of four teams on 18 competition points. A loss in this 2005 Grand Final rematch and other results going against them would see them plummet to 11th.

For the Cowboys, Tate’s return pushes Will Tupou to an extended bench that numbers 20. Fill-in hooker Clint Amos makes way for Payne, while Tariq Sims hits the pine.

Meanwhile Tim Sheens has dropped fullback Wade McKinnon, with Tim Moltzen handed the No.1 jersey. Liam Fulton returns to start in the second row, a straight swap for the injured Ben Murdoch-Masila. Sean Meaney is the new face on the interchange.

The Tigers will need to show a new resolve on the road this week – they’re currently experiencing their worst season away from home, winning just two of eight games.

Watch Out Cowboys: The right fringe (the region midway between the right goal post and the corner post) is one of the few bright spots for the Wests Tigers. They have crossed for 21 tries there so far in 2011, the most by any side.

It’ll be out of character, but Ashley Graham and Kalifa Faifai Loa can expect plenty of high kicks headed their way. Faifai Loa in particular looks a bit of a bunny under the high ball – he’s defused just two of eight bombs and has failed to field all three cross-field bombs aimed his way. Graham is safe enough under the conventional bomb (defusing 71 per cent) but has a woeful 25 per cent defusal of cross-field bombs.

It’s not a go-to attacking weapon for either side – in fact the Cowboys and Tigers have kicked the fewest bombs all year (just 10 and 17 respectively) but if Marshall opts to put ball to boot a little more often here it just might pay dividends.

Danger Sign: If Marshall varies his attacking options, utilising all of his usual hops, skips, cut-out passes and inside flick passes, the Cowboys won’t know what’s coming next. And if Marshall and Robert Lui go to the air you can bet Faifai Loa and Graham will start getting jittery.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: Poor options, poor ball security and dropped balls have really hurt the Wests Tigers over the past two months. Along with the Roosters, they’ve been guilty of the most errors over the past eight weeks, making 102 in that period. Benji Marshall is the biggest offender, with 30 errors – the most in the NRL.

As a playmaker Marshall is bound to blunder more than most, and he finished with the second most errors last year and the Tigers were still a premiership threat. However, whereas he averaged 1.5 errors a game in 2010 he’s now out to two errors and rising in 2011. Last week he made four against the Eels…

Cowboys fullback Matt Bowen really seized the initiative in Thurston’s absence last week, posting a season-high 63 touches and dictating field position with a career-high 18 kicks for 581 metres, including a super 40/20. Bowen is a confidence player and if the Tigers allow him latitude they could be chasing their tails all evening.

Danger Sign: If Bowen gets the Cowboys on the front foot it will take a lot of the pressure off Brent Tate in his comeback game and allow him to inject selectively. And if Tariq Sims makes a bust in the opening 20 minutes (seven line-breaks and 42 tackle-breaks to date) you’ll know he’s out to make up for lost time.

Plays To Watch: Matt Bowen chiming in and teasing Chris Lawrence running an arc line with ball in two hands; Faifai Loa’s supports and powerful finishes; Aaron Payne popping an inside ball to a forward close to the try line; Matt Scott’s forceful charges up the guts; Moltzen grasping his chance in the No.1; Marshall not missing Thurston one bit; Robbie Farah’s lateral runs to put a support through on the fringes.

Where It Will Be Won: Making the most of opportunities, and players lifting a notch. Thurston has been responsible for more than 80 per cent of the Cowboys’ scoring plays, with league highs in try assists (21) and line-break-assists (26). Bowen has the next most impact with nine try assists and seven line-break assists. The team covered admirably last week but every Cowboy knows they need to play to their optimum if they are to keep their premiership campaign on track. Wingers Graham and Faifai Loa (eight tries each) need to be at their finishing best.

Meanwhile the Tigers need to lift their morale. They can’t control player movements so they need to put that to the side and concentrate on getting the job done right here, right now. Or else what have they got left to play for in 2011?

The slightest drop in intensity or botched opportunity could be the difference. Comparing some key attacking stats would support this: the Cowboys and Tigers make the second- and third-most line-breaks of all sides with 4.9 and 4.6 respectively. The Tigers conceded 4.4 line-breaks, the Cowboys leak 4.5. There’s nothing in it.

The History: Played 23; Wests Tigers 12, Cowboys 11. The Wests Tigers have won six of the past eight games, including the past three. The Tigers have won two of the past three games at Dairy Farmers Stadium – although the Cowboys maintain a dominant 8-3 record at home.

Conclusion: This could come down to who wants the two competition points more. Given the Tigers’ perilous position on the premiership ladder, it could be the visitors who turn up with the stronger will to win.

Plus, Benji Marshall is due a breakout game – and up against one of the more inexperienced halves combinations and with Brent Tate bound to be a little ring rusty in his reading of plays, Marshall won’t get a better chance to shine.

The Tigers to spring an upset by eight points.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Gerard Sutton; Touch Judges – Jason Walsh & Chris Butler; Video Ref – Sean Hampstead.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.