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North Queensland Cowboys v St George Illawarra Dragons
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Friday 7.35pm

Talk about saddle sore! With just a 16 per cent winning rate in Sydney since 2006 the Cowboys return to their ‘hole in the wall’ looking to gun down the Dragons and retain their position in the middle of the top eight.

Neil Henry’s charges pretty much blew their chance against the Rabbitohs last week with a woeful first-half defensive effort, missing 18 tackles and conceding six unanswered line-breaks as Souths romped to a 20-nil lead in as many minutes. Their 16-point second-half comeback wasn’t enough to prevent their 30th loss in the NSW capital since their sole Grand Final appearance six years ago.

The defeat was the Cowboys’ third in their past five games and with three away games on their schedule over the next month and the Origin period looming they need to bounce back here to stay ahead of the chasing pack.

Meanwhile Dragons fans – and players – are still shaking their heads following their miraculous comeback win over the Roosters, having nailed their opponents at the death with two tries inside the final three minutes on Anzac Day.

It could so easily have been three losses from their past four games – but now coach Steve Price knows that edging ahead of the third-placed Sharks and even challenging the Broncos for second spot on the ladder before the end of the month is a possibility given the Red V have games against the lowly Eels and Panthers over the next three weeks.

In Dragons team changes Kyle Stanley is back at centre after a week off with injury, with Matt Prior shifting to the second row to cover for the injured Beau Scott. Jack De Belin, a late withdrawal last week, replaces Josh Miller on the interchange.

Cowboys coach Neil Henry has made just one change to his squad, adding Glenn Hall to form a five-man interchange at this stage.

Expect this to be an expansive contest between two gifted running sides. Both teams are way up the ranks for tackle busts, averaging 32 each – and when they last met the Cowboys tallied 48 in defeat and the Dragons’ 47.

Watch Out Cowboys: Goal-line defence, particularly around dummy-half, is proving their Achilles heel. North Queensland have surrendered more tries to simple barges from the ruck than any side, with Issac Luke’s successful dig last week making it five for the season. Worryingly the Dragons have scored three times from dummy-half, including Michael Weyman’s burrow against the Roosters last week.

The Dragons’ pack will take some stopping. Ben Creagh is virtually guaranteed a Blues jersey given his good form. He scored two tries last week and is averaging close to three tackle-breaks a game, while his six offloads are third most in his position. Marginal Origin candidate Michael Weyman will throw himself into everything hoping to woo selectors. Weyman has been impressive in his average 43 minutes of game time: he leads all props for tries (two), line-breaks (two) and try assists (one, alongside George Rose). Plus he has added 101 metres each game.

Danger Sign: Hooker Mitch Rein ranks second in the comp for line-breaks out of dummy-half (with three) – he set up Ben Creagh’s first try last week with a dummy and scything run and will need to be watched at all times.  

Watch Out Dragons: Expect Thurston and Bowen to head right often, concentrating on Dragons’ winger Daniel Vidot. The Cowboys have scored the most tries in the NRL in the right corner (12 of their combined 35) including two to Ashley Graham last week. Last year the Cowboys were left-edge scoring specialists but Thurston’s move to five-eighth has seen him get more involved wider on the right edge. Expect him to let loose towering youngster Jason Taumalolo who has scored three tries and made three-line-breaks in only five outings.

However, they’ll still test out Jason Nightingale’s wing – they’ve recorded more left-side shifts than any team (72) and scored nine tries.

How the Dragons defence handles the potent Cowboys attack will be crucial: the home side has scored the second-most points and tries (23.8 and 4.4) and added the third-most line-breaks (5.1) through key contributors Ashley Graham and Matt Bowen (seven each). The Dragons concede the fewest line-breaks in the comp (2.9) so it will be an enthralling contest.

No team supports the ball carrier better (408 to Dragons’ 261).

Danger Sign: Watch for Thurston to test out Dragons fullback Brett Morris after his shaky game last week. Morris is a confidence player who is open to self-doubt at the moment after conceding two tries to the Roosters, firstly beaten to a bomb by Anthony Minichiello and then failing to bat a ball dead with Mitchell Pearce capitalising. Wonky grubbers and towering kicks will again be the order of the day.

Johnathan Thurston v Jamie Soward: It’s the first time these two go head to head since Thurston’s switch to five-eighth and it will be Soward’s last throw of the dice to push his Origin claims.

Thurston, the NRL’s benchmark playmaker (11 try assists, 10 line-break assists), will pose all sorts of problems for the Dragons with his quick shifts and also his show-and-go should he catch the opposition defence in two minds. He ranks second to only Corey Norman for runs by a No.6, averaging 11 runs for 80 metres a game. He’ll be a huge threat going himself – he has yet to cross the try line in 2012 and scored last time these sides met.

Meanwhile despite failing to register even one line-break (neither has Todd Carney for that matter) Jamie Soward continues to create opportunities for team-mates. Soward has five line-break assists and four try assists and his long-kicking game is ranked No.2 in the comp (48 long kicks).

Where It Will Be Won: Getting it right in attack and defence. Both sides rank among the best at carving out territory each week and backing it up with tenacious ‘D’. The Dragons rank third for most metres, literally just one step ahead of the Cowboys. Overall they boast a positive differential of 110 metres a game, compared to the Cowboys’ competitive 52 metres a match. Clearly the side that has an off night will struggle.

The History: Played 21; Dragons 11, Cowboys 10. The honours are even four games apiece from their past eight meetings – although the Dragons have won the past three. The Cowboys have an imposing home record, winning six of eight at Dairy Farmers Stadium.  

The Last Time They Met: The Dragons defeated the Cowboys 22-8 at WIN Jubilee Stadium in Round 9 last year.

Missing Darius Boyd and Jason Nightingale to injury the Dragons still fired too many guns for the full-strength Cowboys’ defence, racing to an 18-2 lead at halftime. Dean Young drew first blood for the Dragons when he plunged over from dummy-half with 14 minutes gone, before a controversial intercept try to Brett Morris, who appeared to be offside rushing up off his try line, saw the Red V lead 12-2 at the 28-minute mark. When Kyle Stanley crossed supporting Mark Gasnier’s weaving half-break the home side had a 16-point buffer heading to the sheds.

Halfback Ben Hornby extended the Dragons’ lead when he caught a Brett Morris in-field chip kick to cross in the 54th minute, before a set scrum play resulted in Johnathan Thurston touching down for the sole Cowboys four-pointer with two minutes remaining.

Defence was a concern for both sides, with the Dragons missing 44 tackles and the Cowboys missing 46. The home side’s attack was more penetrative, recording five line-breaks to the Cowboys’ two, while completions were matched at 84 per cent apiece.

Mark Gasnier was man of the match with 16 runs for 138 metres plus a try assist and four offloads, while the Cowboys were best served by Thurston who made 131 metres in the No.7 and brushed aside 10 Dragons defenders throughout the afternoon.

Match Officials: Referees – Tony Archer & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Russell Smith.

The Way We See It: It’s hard to line up the form but back at home we anticipate the Cowboys to be a little hungrier and, as a result, quicker in their executions and pace of play. With their grip on a top-eight spot under threat we expect them to be too fast and too furious for the Dragons. Cowboys by eight points.

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (Qld), delayed 9.30pm (NSW); Fox Sports 2 – Delayed 1am.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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