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Warriors v Cowboys
Mt Smart Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm (NZ time)

The outcome of this blockbuster could have massive repercussions for both sides: although the Warriors and Cowboys are entrenched in the top eight, a win by either side, with other results falling their way, could see the victor grab a crucial home semi-final.

The Warriors, currently seventh, have nothing to lose; a loss would leave them treading water on the ladder, awaiting a likely meeting with the Sea Eagles in Qualifying Finals week. Meanwhile a Cowboys loss could see Neil Henry’s unit slump as low as seventh on the ladder, leaving them to likely suit up against Manly and face elimination in the first week of the finals series.

But wins by either team, and other results falling their way, could see the victor finish fourth on the ladder.

The Warriors were impressive despite falling narrowly to the Dragons in Wollongong last Sunday, sustaining just their second loss in the past eight weeks. Kevin Locke and Feleti Mateo cracked the Red V open to score close-range tries and they were solid in defence, missing just 28 tackles. The difference on the scoreboard boiled down to a contentious try to Mark Gasnier, who benefitted from an extremely late offload from team-mate Beau Scott to romp away and score their opening points when trailing 10-nil.

Meanwhile the Cowboys got out of jail 28-20 against the Sharks at home last week, arresting a three-game losing streak; but the victory came at a huge cost with impressive rookie star Tariq Sims ruled out for the rest of the season with a broken leg.

Meanwhile the Warriors have their own injury woes, with hooker Aaron Heremaia joining Manu Vatuvei on the sidelines. Heremaia injured his hand last week and won’t be back until the semi-finals, while Vatuvei’s wrist complaint is another week away from a green light. Consequently Krisnan Inu retains his spot on the wing, with Alehana Mara to start at hooker. 

Feleti Mateo has been named to start in the second row with Elijah Taylor missing from the 17, with Ukuma Ta’ai returning from suspension on the bench. Lewis Brown rounds out an extended interchange.

Meanwhile Neil Henry has named Gavin Cooper to start in the second row for the injured Tariq Sims, with the injured rookie’s brother Ashton joining the bench.

The Cowboys face a huge hurdle this week – the Warriors are pumped for a fifth straight victory at home and will be full of confidence knowing they score more points against North Queensland at Mt Smart Stadium than against any other opponent (a whopping 28.7 per game).

It could be a milestone week for Cowboys’ fullback Matt Bowen, who requires seven points to hit 500 in his career.

Watch Out Warriors: The home team’s markers really need to be alert defending on their try line – the Cowboys like to have a go from dummy-half more than any other team and have scored an NRL-high 10 tries so far. They’ve also scored the most tries from inside 10 metres of an opponent’s line (58).

The Cowboys love to confuse their opposition by setting off plenty of bodies in motion. Decoy runners play a huge role in their game plan – halfback Johnathan Thurston loves to use them as a smokescreen before pumping the ball out the back to speedy supports. The Warriors need to make good reads on the likes of Dallas Johnson (98 decoy runs), Gavin Cooper (80) and Glenn Hall (68) who are all in the top 10 in the decoy stats category. 

Danger Sign: He’s been a little quiet out of late but interchange hooker James Segeyaro has the potential to be a game-breaker running out of dummy-half. He leads the NRL with four dummy-half line-breaks. If Segeyaro starts to get a roll on you’ll know the Cowboys are intent on a territorial domination – they average the second-most metres by any side (1385). 

Watch Out Cowboys: It’s clear the Warriors’ 2011 premiership assault is based around a return to their good old days of entertaining the masses with outrageously gifted offloads to keep plays going. The Warriors rank close second to the Panthers for offloads (13.4 a game) and managed 17 against the Dragons – no mean feat given the premiers have restricted opponents to just 11 on average. The Cowboys need to watch under-rated centre Joel Moon in particular; he offloaded a game-high four times last week while Feleti Mateo, Sam Rapira and Krisnan Inu each contributed three.

Warriors’ fullback Kevin Locke and halfback Shaun Johnson continue to be simply electrifying in broken play. Locke channelled Preston Campbell to bamboozle the Dragons with a hat-trick of right-foot sidesteps to score last week. And Johnson is averaging three tackle-breaks and almost a try assist a game, as well as 81 metres of running territory each week – the most by a No.7.

Danger Sign: Out on the left wing Kalifa Faifai Loa will have his fingers crossed James Maloney hasn’t looked at his dismal cross-field bomb defusal stats – he’s failed to gather in a single bomb all year. And all Cowboys’ wingers combined have returned a lowly 32 per cent defusal of cross-field aerial assaults. Meanwhile the Warriors have scored 23 tries from kicks, the most by any team.

Plays To Watch: Kevin Locke’s whippet-like runs; Feleti Mateo’s offloads; Matthew Bowen’s tackle busts (121 to date – third most in the comp); Johnathan Thurston dictating plays and taking on the line down the left fringe; Dallas Johnson’s defence (965 tackles, fourth most by any player). 

Where It Will Be Won: The experts will tell you defence wins the games that count – and this game should be played like a semi-final come a week early. Importantly both sides haven’t shown a great deal of steel in the defensive department in 2011, instead relying on a dazzling attack to overcome their foes.

The Cowboys average 36 missed tackles a week, with only four sides missing more. Unfortunately for the Warriors, they are one of those four sides, missing 37 (the second most by any team). As noted above, they did offer good resistance last week, missing only 28 tackles, but up against a livewire attack boasting Johnathan Thurston and Matthew Bowen they’ll need to focus for the full 80 minutes again.

The Cowboys missed 36 tackles against the Sharks. They may have afforded to do that last week but it won’t wash over in Auckland.

Whichever side finishes this game with the fewer missed tackles should come out ahead on the scoreboard.
The History: Played 28; Warriors 14, Cowboys 14. The Cowboys have won six of the past eight, including a 30-10 victory in Townsville in Round 15. The Warriors hold a 15-10 advantage at Mt Smart Stadium.

Conclusion: The Warriors are playing the better football, with narrow losses to heavyweights Brisbane and St George Illawarra. But the Cowboys are capable of a blowout game any given week. 

The loss of Tariq Sims cannot be understated – he’s been devastating in the middle for the Cowboys all year, both in attack and defence. His absence could be hard to overcome.
It all boils down to Thurston, who has been frustrated a little in attack recently. If he can seize the early momentum with a show-and-go or ignite his backline and link with Matt Bowen often, the Cowboys might be a chance. But in form and at home, the Warriors get our nod.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & David Abood; Video Ref – Chris Ward. 

Televised: Fox Sports – Live 5.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats.