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Wests Tigers v North Queensland Cowboys
Campbelltown Sports Stadium
Sunday 3pm

A month is a long time in rugby league – just ask the Wests Tigers. Five weeks ago they found themselves anchored near the bottom of the NRL ladder with just one win from their opening six matches and were easily the most disappointing side in the Telstra Premiership given that they came into 2012 as premiership favourites.

But that’s all turned around.

Four wins in a row – including last week’s thrilling come-from-behind win over the Warriors at Leichhardt Oval – has rocketed the Tigers back into the top eight and no doubt has their premiership rivals peering uneasily over their shoulders.

It hasn’t always been pretty. After demolishing Penrith 30-0 in Round 7 and then leading 31-0 against Parramatta a week later, the Tigers gave themselves a mighty scare when they conceded five tries in 13 minutes to escape with a narrow 31-30 result against the premiership cellar-dwellers.

Against the Titans it took a last-minute Robbie Farah charge down and a penalty from the ensuing play to level the scores and ultimately hand them their second golden-point win of the season. And they were forced to come back from 10-0 down to beat the Warriors.

Still, the fact that they have done so without injured back-rowers Gareth Ellis and Chris Heighington and are yet to settle on their spine bodes well for the back half of the season, while there is no doubt their much-vaunted attack is starting to regain its spark.

The real test of their progress, though, will come this weekend against third-placed North Queensland.

Riding a three-match winning streak of their own, the Cowboys boast one of the most feared attacks in the NRL and welcome back Origin stars Johnathan Thurston, Brent Tate, Matt Scott and James Tamou for this week’s clash after downing Penrith last weekend.

They will certainly test the Tigers’ defence. Fullback Matt Bowen has been superb so far in 2012 – his combination with Thurston among the most lethal in the competition – while winger Ashley Graham scored his 12th try of the season last week to sit clear at the top of the try-scoring lists. He is on track to break Bowen’s club record of 22 set in 2007.

On a weekend that features any number of mouth-watering clashes, this one looms as the one game that should not be missed.

The Tigers welcome back hooker Robbie Farah from State of Origin duty, while back-rower Chris Heighington is also back after missing the past four games with a hand injury. Coach Tim Sheens has named Blake Ayshford at five-eighth following his strong second-half performance against the Warriors last week, with Chris Lawrence returning to the centres pending a fitness test on his strained hamstring later in the week. He will be partnered by Beau Ryan, with Matt Utai coming into the starting side on the wing and Joel Reddy dropping back to the bench.

North Queensland have named all four Origin reps in their side, with Michael Morgan dropping out of the squad and Glenn Hall coming into the starting side in place of injured forward Tariq Sims. Coach Neil Henry has named a seven-man interchange bench with Cory Paterson and Kalifa Faifai Loa in contention for final selection.

Tigers captain Robbie Farah needs two more tries to reach 50 for his career. He faces a tough task against the Cowboys, however, who rank first for points scored in the first half this season (with 148). They also average 26.3 points per game in their six appearances in Campbelltown.

Watch Out Tigers: He was never going to beat Billy Slater into the Queensland side but there is a fair case to make for Matt Bowen being the form fullback of the competition. The dynamic custodian’s partnership with halfback Johnathan Thurston has hit new heights in 2012 – his combination of lightning-fast acceleration and ball-playing skills helping him contribute nine line-breaks for nine tries, four line-break assists, seven try assists and 35 tackle-breaks.

Danger Sign: North Queensland are the masters of the fast play-the-ball. So far this season they have managed to win a fast play-the-ball exactly 300 times from 1481 play-the-balls at 20.3 per cent – a better percentage than any other side in the Telstra Premiership. The Tigers must find a way to nullify the visitors’ effectiveness in the tackle if they are to slow their lethal attack.

Watch Out Cowboys: After a difficult start to the season, Tigers fullback Tim Moltzen appears to have rediscovered his confidence, and his performance against the Warriors last start proved he is a man to keep an eye on. Moltzen ran for 130 metres last week, adding a try assist and nine tackle-breaks to go with the brilliant solo try that sealed victory for his side. Watch for him looming up on Benji Marshall’s inside whenever the Tigers halfback runs to the line.

Danger Sign: The Cowboys must prepare themselves for the grubber whenever the Tigers are attacking their line, because no other side in the Telstra Premiership uses this short kick as often. The Tigers have grubbered 48 times this season and have scored 10 tries from kicks, so there is no doubt it is a favoured last-tackle play.

Benji Marshall v Johnathan Thurston: Tigers coach Tim Sheens tinkered with his halves last week, moving Marshall to halfback and watching his new No.7 subsequently orchestrate a thrilling win over the Warriors. The idea is to get Marshall’s hands on the ball more often and his influence will again be key against the Cowboys. It also sets up one of the great individual clashes when he drifts wider and lines up against five-eighth Thurston, who has long been considered the best player in the NRL and has well and truly lived up to that tag in 2012 with 14 try assists and 14 line-break assists.

Where It Will Be Won: The front row battle will be epic. Wests Tigers pair Aaron Woods and Keith Galloway both ran for a massive 182 metres last week against the Warriors and are also averaging 125 metres each in 2012. But they face one of the toughest tasks in the NRL up against State of Origin duo Matt Scott and James Tamou. It promises to be a brutal battle for dominance through the middle.

The History: Played 24; Tigers 13, Cowboys 11. There hasn’t been a lot between these sides over the years and in their four meetings in Campbelltown they have split the results two wins apiece. However, the Tigers have dominated recently with four consecutive wins, scoring an average of 30 points in that time. Notably, the Tigers have won 11 of the past 14 games between these two sides.

The Last Time They Met: Some Benji Marshall brilliance helped end a three-game losing streak for the Tigers as they took the first steps in their impressive charge to last year’s semi-finals.

Ironically, the Tigers had produced their most insipid performance of the year just a week earlier in going down 22-6 to struggling Parramatta but they turned on the flair at Dairy Farmers Stadium with a dominant second-half display securing a 38-18 victory.

The two key passages of play came shortly after the half-time break with the visitors leading by just two points following an intercept try to North Queensland centre Willie Tonga. First, Marshall left two defenders stranded as he stepped his way across to score in the 47th-minute for an 18-10 lead. Then Marshall threw a no-look inside ball for Moltzen to race 60 metres and score beside the sticks.

Matt Bowen gave the home fans some hope of a comeback with 20 minutes remaining when he produced a stunning chip-and-chase effort for Tonga to score his second, but the Tigers finished strongest with Blake Ayshford scoring from the scraps of a Marshall clearing kick and Liam Fulton icing the cake with a well-timed run.

Earlier the Tigers had shot out to a 12-0 lead through tries to Gareth Ellis and Ayshford before North Queensland gave them a fright thanks to Cory Paterson and Tonga.

The Tigers’ win proved to be the first in a run of nine consecutive victories on their way to the grand final qualifier.

The Cowboys completed just 19 of 28 sets (68 per cent) and made 72 tackles more than the visitors, although it was impossible to fault the performance of Bowen who ran for 148 metres, made seven tackle-breaks and produced two try assists.

It was very much a team effort from Wests Tigers, with Keith Galloway running for 135 metres and Robbie Farah adding two try assists and 34 tackles.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Luke Potter; Video Referee – Chris Ward.

The Way We See It: This is a tough one to pick, particularly given North Queensland’s impressive form away from home this season. This promises to be a high-scoring affair with the Sunday afternoon timeslot suiting the attacking mindset of the two sides; however with the Cowboys boasting four players backing up from Origin to Wests Tigers’ one, we favour the home side to edge this one.

Televised: Channel 9 – Delayed 4pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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