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Cowboys v Panthers
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

The big games just keep coming as the finals close in and this battle up north ranks second behind only the Sea Eagles v Wests Tigers in terms of significance this week.  

The Cowboys have played much better than expected so far without injured halfback Johnathan Thurston and find themselves in the box seat to remain in the top four.

The Panthers are just a win outside the top eight and must, repeat must, start winning or they can forget the end-of-year games. Currently ninth, it would seem they’d need to win four of their last six to have a minimum chance of securing a spot (28 competition points still looks like being the magic cut-off point). With Thurston sidelined the Panthers know they won’t get a better chance to topple the fourth-placed Cowboys.

This game comes just days after their skipper Petero Civoniceva announced he’s cutting ties to return to the Broncos next year – what effect will this have on his team-mates? Will they drop their heads, or lift for the man who has worked selflessly to further the club over the past few years?

The Cowboys hit the magic number with last week’s win over the Titans but would like at least one more win to cement their claims – and of course remaining in the top four would see them on track for a coveted home-region semi-finals advantage.

The win over the Titans marked the first time since 2007 they’ve won consecutive away matches and importantly they are currently in the midst of the finest season on the road on record (five from nine). It was only the fourth time from their past 20 games they’ve trailed at the break yet come back to win.

The way things are running right now it appears as if the Cowboys and Broncos will finish proceedings in fourth and fifth place – the only question being which of the Queensland sides will get to host what would be a massive head-to-head finals match in Week One.

Of course, there is plenty of water to flow under the bridge before this happens; regardless, the top four is the goal. This week is huge – a loss for the home side could see Brisbane nudge back in front on the ladder, while a Cowboys’ win could see them jump as high as third should the Rabbitohs add to the Dragons’ current woes.

Coach Neil Henry has retained the squad that beat the Gold Coast, just adding Leeson Ah Mau as an 18th man.

Meanwhile the visitors have been rocked by some injury woes themselves. While they get to welcome back Luke Lewis at lock, they’ve lost five-eighth Travis Burns and, crucially, fullback Lachlan Coote. Consequently David Simmons will shift from wing to fullback, while Ryan Walker will join the side on the wing. Young Harry Seijka will make his debut at five-eighth while Nathan Smith moves to the bench to accommodate Lewis’ return.

Tim Grant has earned a starting berth at prop, with Sam McKendry back to the bench, while Nafe Seluini is missing from the roster.

Watch Out Cowboys: The Panthers are the best side in the NRL for scoring tries up the middle of the ruck, and they’ll continue this assault even without the threat of Lachlan Coote supporting runners up the guts.

Penrith have scored 18 tries so far this year up the middle and will chip away at the Cowboys’ big forwards to find an opening. But the return of Luke Lewis is also another significant danger for the home side. With the Cowboys conceding 16 tries on the left edge and 14 on the right edge Lewis will know he has to take on the line when given an opportunity.

The value in Lewis’ game is he can run, step and pass, all with aplomb.

Danger Sign: Another issue for the Cowboys is the Penrith second-phase game. The Panthers lead the NRL with an average 14.6 offloads a game and will try to get the Cowboys back-pedalling with some clever and belated offloads. Trent Waterhouse (46), Petero Civoniceva (24), Adrian Purtell (24), Lewis (21) and Sam McKendry (15) are guys to watch.

Watch Out Panthers: The Cowboys have all sorts of crafty ways to score points. They have scored six tries directly from turn-overs, showing they aren’t afraid to scoop up a loose ball and hit the gas.

Also, they have scored seven tries from dummy-half (Panthers have conceded five) so the visitors can’t afford to nap near the line. They have scored a massive 43 tries from within 10 metres of the try line (second in the NRL); considering the Panthers’ goal line defence has been breached on 32 occasions this is a worrying stat.

If that’s not scary enough they have scored 11 tries from over halfway, ranking them third in the NRL. (Anyone happen to see Gavin Cooper’s 68-metre try that featured nine Cowboys to wrest the lead back from the Titans last week?)

Danger Sign: If the Panthers think they can ease off a little as the Cowboys come off their try line, they’ll get burned. Matt Bowen is not afraid to throw caution to the wind. If the Panthers start to doze, the Cowboys will shift early and get great results.

Plays To Watch: Bowen playing as a second halfback; Willie Tonga out to prove he still wants a big finish to his career at the Cowboys; Brent Tate out to further prove he’s not a spent force; Civoniceva notching up a 140-metre plus effort to prove his heart is still in the present; and rookie pivot Seijka getting the green light to play his hand and have a crack.

Where It Will Be Won: Mental preparation. Okay, don’t laugh – think about it... the Cowboys still have to believe they are good enough to win without Thurston. Yes, they beat the Titans last week… but they are running last and short-priced favourites for the wooden spoon. If they get behind are they mentally strong enough to think they can reel in a better side like the Panthers?

And what about the visitors? The upheaval continued this week with the Civoniceva revelation. The leader of the club is jumping ship before the Phil Gould/Ivan Cleary era even begins – a deflating moment for the playing group. They are watching their team fall apart at the seams, they have already lost not one, but two coaches effectively (think Steve Georgallis)… can they keep their minds on the task at hand?

With plenty of ‘excuses’ up in the air for either team should they lose, the question becomes who will refuse to use them… or even think about them.

The History: Played 27; Cowboys 10, Panthers 17. The Panthers have won six of the past eight against the Cowboys, including a 30-20 victory in Penrith earlier this season. They are shooting for a third win on the trot against the Cowboys for the first time since 2004. The Panthers haven’t had a problem travelling to Townsville, having won nine of the 13 games played at the venue. While the Panthers have had the edge recently the games have always been close. The average winning margin over the past eight games between the sides is just 7.25 points.

Conclusion: This is a super-tough game to decipher. The Panthers have had a week of distraction and some key injuries, leaving the home-side Cowboys – even without Thurston – a great chance to remain in the top four.

If you need to catch up in your tipping comp, consider the Panthers. But the Cowboys are the safe option.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Chris James; Touch Judges – Steve Carrall & David Munro; Video Ref – Phil Cooley.

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.