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North Queensland Cowboys v Penrith Panthers
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Covering for State of Origin stars is nothing new for the Cowboys – although they’ll have to be 100 per cent switched on if they’re to overcome a rejuvenated Panthers outfit that displayed a newfound intensity to down the Dragons last Monday night.

With his side missing co-captains Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott as well as their other dynamic prop James Tamou and centre Brent Tate, coach Neil Henry will be hoping substitutes Michael Morgan, Ashton Sims, Glenn Hall and Kalifa Faifai Loa can help the Cowboys secure their fourth win from their past five games and keep them in the hunt for an all-important top-two position at season’s end.

But he’ll be acutely aware the Panthers will offer stiff resistance in Townsville, given they have an outstanding record of nine wins from the 14 games played in the tropics.

Confidence in the fifth-placed Cowboys camp is high following their 32-12 thrashing of the Knights in Newcastle. Offsetting their Origin drain is the fact they get back livewire interchange James Segeyaro after his one-match suspension.

Meanwhile the Panthers reacted to Michael Jennings’ sacking to the NSW Cup last week the way coach Ivan Cleary hoped they would: every player added venom to their tackles and purpose to their runs to steamroll the Dragons in the first half. To ice the cake, they outlasted their much-fancied opponent and landed the killer blow when it mattered.

Although they remain second-from-bottom on the ladder the victory took them to six competition points and just two strong wins out of the top eight. Not yet at the halfway mark of the season, anything remains possible for the mountain men.

In a Cowboys reshuffle, Neil Henry has promoted Michael Morgan from the bench to wear Thurston’s No.6 jersey, with Antonio Winterstein moving from wing to centre to cover for Tate. Faifai Loa assumes Winterstein’s wing position.

In the forwards, Ashton Sims starts in the front row for Scott, with Hall starting for Tamou. The new faces on their bench are Segeyaro, Cory Paterson, Scott Bolton and Jason Taumalolo.

Ivan Cleary has made just one change to the starting 13 from last week: Cameron Ciraldo will stick his head in the second row with Ryan Simpkins slotting in at lock for Luke Lewis. Also, Mitch Achurch has been added to form a five-man interchange.  

Watch Out Cowboys: Winger Josh Mansour has been a revelation over the past fortnight. A former South Sydney Toyota Cup player of the Year, the 21-year-old made his NRL debut against the Storm in Round 9, carving out 117 metres and five tackle busts. He added a whopping 227 metres from seven runs against the Dragons, plus seven line-breaks. He’s an unknown quantity the Cowboys chasers will need to wrap up quickly.

Fast play-the-balls were the key to the Panthers’ victory last week, as well as slowing down the opposition attack at the ruck. They pushed the envelope a few times, conceding the penalty count 8-11 at home but against a slick unit like the Cowboys that’s exactly what they’ll need to do again. The Cowboys will need to be careful they don’t unnecessarily lose the footy in their quick struggles to get to their feet.

Danger Sign: It’s not their strong suit but expect the Panthers to head right hoping to isolate and confuse the Cowboys’ left-edge defenders who have conceded double the tries their right-side defence has (12 to seven).  

Watch Out Panthers: Yes Penrith won last Monday – but that was by one point against a side that is averaging just 15 points a game. The Cowboys are a different prospect – they rank third for points each week, compiling an impressive 25 a game. Meanwhile the Panthers average the second fewest (14.6). They’ll need to find a few more points from somewhere if they’re to trouble the home side.

Interchange James Segeyaro is certain to make his presence felt. Last time the sides met he made a game-high eight tackle busts plus two line-breaks. In 2012 he’s made three try assists and three line-breaks, scored two tries and he leads his side for offloads (14).

The balance of probability suggests Ashley Graham will threaten the tryline: he is the top tryscorer in the NRL with 11 so far.

Danger Sign: Any time fullback Matt Bowen drifts in to second five-eighth, which he’s bound to do in Thurston’s absence. Bowen already has eight tries, eight line-breaks and seven try assists under his belt and that tally is likely to increase with added involvement here. Bowen’s ad-hoc play will be particularly dangerous on the left edge given the Panthers have leaked 16 tries there. Plus, the Cowboys have headed in that direction more than any other side, making 90 sideline shifts left to date.

Aaron Payne v Kevin Kingston: Two crafty playmakers will set about laying the platform for their forward packs. It’s a milestone week for Payne who will be hoping to notch his 100th career win in his 205th NRL game. An under-rated performer, Payne will take on more responsibility in Thurston’s absence. He ranks third in his position in the NRL for try assists (four) and line-break assists (three). The Panthers will also need to shut down his offloads (one a game). Meanwhile Kingston shoulders the heaviest defensive workload of all hookers, making massive 47 tackles a game (he made 52 the last time these sides met). Kingston also ranks second for dummy-half line-breaks (three). He was the reason they got the cash against the Dragons last week, handing off to Ryan Simpkins for his side’s opening try and then scoring himself with a burrow from dummy-half.

Where It Will Be Won: For the Cowboys it’s a matter of how well the side gels with its new cogs. If they can function at better than 80 per cent, including keeping dropped balls and other mistakes to a minimum, they should compete well. For the Panthers it’s a matter of retaining the focus and passion they showed last week – although Luke Lewis’ absence and leadership will be sorely missed.

The History: Played 28; Panthers 17, Cowboys 11. The Panthers have won five of the past eight games against the Cowboys and boast a formidable 9-5 record in clashes at Dairy Farmers Stadium. However, they have lost the past two games played in Townsville.  

The Last Time They Met: Despite being without playmaker Johnathan Thurston the Cowboys defeated the Panthers 30-18 at Dairy Farmers Stadium in Round 21 last year.

The home team needed to overhaul a 12-6 halftime deficit to grab the competition points, their victory assured when they crossed for the opening four tries of the second half.

Ashton Sims got the ball rolling when he scored his first ever try in Cowboys colours just 30 seconds after the resumption. North Queensland then assumed the lead for the first time when James Segeyaro threw a dummy and dived over from dummy-half in the 54th minute, before Brent Tate’s try off a Matt Bowen bomb on the half hour, and Ashley Graham’s try four minutes later, extended the scoreline to 26-12.

Panthers winger Adrian Purtell finished off an 80-metre attacking raid from a turnover to add some respectability to the scoreline before Cowboys five-eighth Ray Thompson collected his own grubber to score the final points of the night with a minute remaining.

It was a scrappy game, with both sides making 12 errors. The Panthers missed 38 tackles on the evening, with the Cowboys making five line-breaks to the Panthers’ three. Penrith really threw the ball around, making 19 offloads all up.

North Queensland were best served by winger Graham who made 17 runs for 149 metres, while Michael Jennings ran for 203 metres for the Panthers, with seven tackle busts.

Match Officials: Referees – Steve Lyons & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Dave Abood & Clayton Sharpe; Video Referee – Steve Clark.

The Way We See It: Even taking into account their astonishingly good record in Townsville, we tip the euphoria of the Panthers’ first home win will be short-lived. The Cowboys are used to functioning without their key elements and will be ready. Cowboys by eight points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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