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Newcastle Knights v North Queensland Cowboys
Hunter Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

With four wins from nine games and a mounting injury toll that includes captain Kurt Gidley confirming he is out for the season, there is little doubt it is crunch time for Wayne Bennett and the Newcastle Knights.

With so much expectation surrounding their new-look squad in 2012, the Knights’ current 10th-place standing is hardly the revolution fans have been dreaming about under billionaire owner Nathan Tinkler.

That’s not to suggest it is panic stations just yet. Consistency has been the problem for the Knights and although they are yet to record consecutive wins they have shown glimpses of great potential in victories over Penrith, Cronulla and Canterbury.

Unfortunately, every time they look to have taken one step forward they have followed it up with a step backwards the following weekend – as evidenced by last Sunday’s dour display against the Roosters. Footage of star fullback Darius Boyd shedding tears in the dressing sheds at half-time highlights the frustration felt at the club right now as they struggle to hit their stride.

That’s why this week’s clash with high-flying North Queensland is so crucial. Another loss on the eve of the State of Origin series – which will certainly see the club lose Boyd and Akuila Uate to the rep sides and possibly Jarrod Mullen, Kade Snowden, Neville Costigan and Chris Houston at some time as well – could prove devastating to their finals hopes in 2012.

Yet a win over the star-studded North Queensland outfit could just as easily kick-start their season and give them the confidence they need to string together a few wins.

The Cowboys have been particularly impressive of late – piling on 96 points in the past three weeks to sit fourth on the NRL ladder. And while their big guns in Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen have been at their brilliant best, they have also unleashed an array of attacking arsenal this season with Tariq Sims, James Segeyaro, Brent Tate and Ashley Graham all playing big roles.

That said, the Cowboys can struggle at times away from home and there is no doubt Newcastle are a far different outfit at Hunter Stadium. The Knights certainly have a point to prove – the question is whether they have the self-belief to match this dynamic North Queensland squad.

The Knights have made two changes to their side with Junior Sa’u lining up in the centres in place of the dumped Wes Naiqama, while Evarn Tuimavave replaces Joel Edwards who is serving a one-match suspension for a dangerous throw.

Cowboys forward Glenn Hall returns from a toe injury in place of Jason Taumalolo who will play for Mackay Cutters in the Queensland Cup this weekend. James Segeyaro was unsuccessful in getting his Grade 2 high tackle charge downgraded at the judiciary and will be sidelined for one week.

Newcastle winger James McManus plays his 100th game for the club and will be confident of success – the Knights have won 10 of 14 games against North Queensland at home, scoring an average of 30 points. McManus has scored 19 tries and made 21 line-breaks in his 45 games at Hunter Stadium.

Cowboys winger Ashley Graham has scored nine tries from as many games this season, equalling the record for most tries by any Cowboy at this stage of a year, set by Johnathan Thurston in 2006.

Watch Out Knights: Newcastle’s edge defence can expect a working over from a Cowboys side that loves heading down the short side. In fact, no team in the Telstra Premiership attacks the short side as frequently as North Queensland. In 2012 they have done so a whopping 140 times– 80 times down the left and 60 down the right. It will be vital for the Knights to get back quickly and hold their line.

Danger Sign: North Queensland are experts at getting a fast play-the-ball. This season they have notched 205 fast play-the-balls from a total of 1202 attempts at 17.1 per cent – second only to South Sydney. Players to watch include Gavin Cooper with a fast play-the-ball rate of 26.8 per cent and Ashley Graham (22 per cent).

Watch Out Cowboys: Jarrod Mullen has been in fine form for the Knights this season. The classy playmaker has scored five tries to sit alongside wingers Akuila Uate and James McManus as the side’s top tryscorer, as well as adding two try assists, a line-break assist and 19 tackle-breaks. However it is his kicking game that has been his greatest asset with 3966 metres gained from the boot at an average of 440 per game.

Danger Sign: Newcastle love using the bomb as an attacking option, so the Cowboys’ back three can expect plenty of high balls to rain their way. In 2012 the Knights have put the ball up a total of 31 times for a gain of 834 metres – more than any other side in the Telstra Premiership.

Darius Boyd v Matt Bowen: A huge battle looms between these two Queenslanders as Boyd looks to recapture the form that made him one of the most lethal fullbacks in the competition during his time at St George Illawarra. There is no doubt the Knights need him to fire and this weekend would be a good time to start given the brilliant start to the season of his opposite number. Bowen has scored eight tries, made eight line-breaks, produced five try assists, two line-break assists and added 28 tackle-breaks in 2012.

Where It Will Be Won: It is crucial that Newcastle dominate in the tackle in order to stifle the visitors’ speedy attack. North Queensland are lethal when given room to move, but if the Knights can halt their momentum they will go a long way towards winning the game. Conversely, if the Cowboys get a roll going they could score a mountain of points.

The History: Played 26; Knights 16, Cowboys 10. The Knights have enjoyed good success against North Queensland with a 62.5 per cent winning return (they only perform better against Penrith and Souths). They have also been dominant at Hunter Stadium with 10 wins from 14 clashes.

The Last Time They Met: North Queensland prevailed 22-12 away from home in Round 18 last year despite the absence of injured stars Johnathan Thurston and Aaron Payne.

It took the Cowboys just five minutes to open the scoring with Will Tupou cleaning up the scraps from a Matt Bowen cross-field bomb to plant the ball out wide.

Knights captain Kurt Gidley leveled the scores nine minutes later when he ran strongly at first receiver from a scrum and stormed over on the right edge. Scores remained locked at 6-all for the next 36 minutes until James Segeyaro broke through a tackle close to the line and offloaded for Joel Riethmuller to dive over between the posts.

Newcastle again hit back six minutes later when Ryan Stig stepped through and passed inside for Gidley to score his second. But after Bowen slotted a penalty goal for a 14-12 lead the Cowboys took control, with Segeyaro capitalising on a lucky bounce from a kick to score North Queensland’s third try and Cory Paterson then bursting through two tackles to score against his former club.

The Knights completed just 61 per cent of their sets (23/38) and made 77 tackles more than the visitors. North Queensland props Matt Scott and James Tamou were both impressive, Scott contributing 157 metres and 20 tackles and Tamou 137 metres, 17 tackles and five tackle-breaks.

Newcastle’s outside backs all topped 100 metres, with fullback Wes Naiqama leading the way with 193 metres and 13 tackle-breaks.

Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Steve Clark.

The Way We See It: Injuries remain a concern for the Knights and they looked all at sea without captain Kurt Gidley last weekend; however they are a different side in front of their home fans and can always be relied upon to put in a strong showing. The question is whether that is enough to beat a rampant Cowboys outfit. Despite a loss to South Sydney two weeks ago, North Queensland has been strong away from home this year and we see them escaping with a narrow victory here. Cowboys by four points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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