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Bulldogs v Cowboys
ANZ Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Hands up if you expected the Cowboys to go this well without Johnathan Thurston?

If you are being fair dinkum there aren’t many of you out there thrusting your arms skyward and nodding the affirmative… nevertheless the Cowboys have been great and are now running third.

Hands up if you thought the Bulldogs would be premiership contenders this year?

There should be a few more of you with your hands raised… sadly it hasn’t materialised – but they are still in with a hope of making a late run to the finals.

Currently sitting 10th on the ladder, the Bulldogs need to win their last five games to have a chance, so a win at home over the Thurston-less Cowboys is imperative. They are four points and a significant differential adrift of the eighth-placed Wests Tigers, so big wins would be a help.

In their only change from the side that lost to the Roosters last week, Josh Morris returns in the centres, displacing Tim Lafai.

Meanwhile the Cowboys have retained the 17 players who took care of the Panthers, with a cosmetic change seeing Ashton Sims to start at prop and James Tamou reverting to the bench.

The Bulldogs have added incentive to perform this week following the announcement midweek that captain Andrew Ryan will retire at season’s end. They have five games left to pay their respects to a fine clubman and no-one deserves to go out on better terms than ‘Bobcat’.

A huge plus for the ’Dogs is that they’ve won their past three against the Cowboys, with the visitors tasting success at ANZ Stadium just once since their grand final appearance in 2005 (for a 1-6 record).

Watch Out Bulldogs: The Cowboys have been deadly in the second halves of matches, scoring a league-high 49 second-stanza tries. The Bulldogs cannot afford to go to sleep in the back end.

A big factor in recent times has been the impact of Cowboys’ bench hooker James Segeyaro. The Papua New Guinea representative had 41 touches in the win over Penrith and over the past month the rookie has been awesome, averaging 45 minutes, eight runs and 62 metres. He has also added 20 tackle-breaks, six offloads and two line-breaks.

The Bulldogs need to attack opposition kicks in the air – for whatever reason they are allowing the ball to bounce and it’s costing them big time. Last week the Roosters scored four tries off errors while attempting to defuse kicks and they’ll suffer more of the same here if Ben Barba doesn’t muscle up under the high ball.

Danger Sign: Segeyaro isn’t afraid to have a crack from close range, a worry for the Bulldogs who have conceded four dummy-half tries and 37 from within 10 metres of the line. If the markers get lazy or fall for a dummy and split early, Segeyaro will dive through in a flash.

Watch Out Cowboys: Josh Morris returns to the top grade with something to prove. The former Australian representative was demoted when Jim Dymock took the reins and after a stint in the NSW Cup he is ready to show he belongs in the NRL.

It wasn’t a massive surprise to see Morris dumped, as he has averaged just 72 metres this year, has just six line-breaks and four tries – well below the standard expected of the flyer. His defence has also been a massive concern, with his reads being off and his aggression down. You can expect he’ll be coming up and into the face of players this week looking to make an impact.

Corey Payne, Frank Pritchard and Sam Kasiano can hurt the Cowboys generating second-phase play. The Cowboys concede the fourth most offloads and Payne (27), Pritchard (24) and Kasiano (20) have the ability to keep the plays moving on the fringes.

Danger Sign: Josh Morris is at his best when given some space on the left side to work his magic before the line. He loves to put on a little in-and-away. For this he also needs some help from his inside man – watch for him to put himself on the outside shoulder of his opposite, hoping for a pinpoint pass to give him the outside corridor. Then he’ll hope his pace can burn the opposition, or that sidestepping back inside can wrong-foot them.

Plays To Watch: Jamal Idris’ dummy-half runs and tackle-breaks (90 to date, sixth most in the comp); Tariq Sims (54 tackle-breaks, seven line-breaks) bobbing up near the line; Brent Tate’s lovely quick hands; and of course the freakish Ben Barba/Matthew Bowen talent show.

Where It Will Be Won: In the battle of the No.1s. The excitement surrounding the Barba-Bowen showdown should be enough to ensure a bumper crowd at ANZ Stadium.

The Bulldogs’ No.1 was in full flight against the Roosters, with a length-of-the-field kick-return try and another long break. Barba, who Peter Sterling named this week as one of the top four players he’d pay to watch, now has 10 tries for the year direct from turnovers – a phenomenal and exciting effort.

Head to head, the Bulldogs have a whopping 19 tries from over halfway to their name and have made 11 kick-return line-breaks, with Barba the catalyst. By comparison the Cowboys have tallied six kick-return line-breaks and 11 long-range tries – still impressive.

Barba is averaging 121 metres, has a staggering 24 line-breaks, two line-break assists, 15 tries and seven try assists. He has busted through would-be defenders 96 times and has contributed 25 offloads.

Meanwhile the mercurial Bowen averages 109 metres, has made 10 line-breaks, nine line-break assists, five tries, 14 try assists – and he ranks second in the league for tackle-breaks (with 102).

Given this pair’s lethal talent the kick-chase from both sides needs to be absolutely spot-on. In this regard the Bulldogs have posted 37 poor chases this year, while the Cowboys have tallied 26.

It could be they’ll only meet in the last line of defence – where Bowen ranks second in the NRL for try saves (with 16) and Barba eighth (with 12).

The History: Played 27; Bulldogs 18, Cowboys 9. The Bulldogs have won three straight against the Cowboys and are looking for a four-peat for the first time since 2004. But the Cowboys won the previous four matches before the streak. At ANZ Stadium the pair have battled it out three times, with the Cowboys taking a 2-1 advantage. One of those wins was in the 2004 finals before the ’Dogs rebounded to win the competition.

Conclusion: The Bulldogs should be desperate to win and it might just be enough to give them a sniff. Yes, the Cowboys have been great without Thurston (winning three from four) but surely they can only hold on so long…

The visitors are by no means out of it – and could easily extend their run of wins – but there is just a gut feeling about the ’Dogs. Perhaps they’re not on their last legs just yet.  

Memo tippers: don’t be afraid of the upset.

Match Officials: Referees – Jared Maxwell & Gavin Morris; Touch Judges – Gavin Reynolds & Adam Reid; Video Ref – Steve Clark.

Televised: Channel Nine – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports – Delayed Saturday 1am.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.