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North Queensland Cowboys v Canberra Raiders
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

It’s been a long and hard season for Canberra and the task of turning it all around doesn’t get any easier when they make one of the toughest road trips in the NRL to Dairy Farmers Stadium on Saturday night.

The irony is that North Queensland and Canberra sit just four points apart on the competition table, but that must seem like the biggest four points in the world to Raiders coach David Furner.

With a clear split now between the top eight and bottom eight sides, the Cowboys head into this clash as firm favourites and with an opportunity to move back into the top four with victory on Saturday night.

Canberra, on the other hand, are fighting to salvage their season. A last-start win away to Newcastle was desperately needed and certainly helped keep the media wolves away from Furner’s door for a while longer, but it won’t take much for them to return. More importantly, it will be difficult for the Green Machine to fight their way back into finals contention should they fall any further behind.

Unfortunately, little has gone right for the Raiders this season both on and off the field.

The loss of captain and five-eighth Terry Campese to yet another season-ending knee injury was a cruel blow, as was a similar injury to prop Brett White, while Josh Dugan, Shaun Fensom, Glen Buttriss, Joe Picker and Trevor Thurling have all spent time on the sidelines.

However, most disruptive of late has been talk of Furner’s future, with reports that he is within weeks of being shown the door. The club has since come out in support of their coach, but a far better way to make a stand would be to knock over the Cowboys this Saturday.

That in itself won’t be an easy task – North Queensland haven’t lost at home since Round 6, showed tremendous resolve in downing rivals Brisbane last weekend and are looking ominous given the superb form of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen in 2012.

Time will tell whether they are up to the task.

North Queensland will be without prop Ashton Sims this week after he took the early guilty plea on his grade two careless high tackle charge. Either Scott Bolton or Cory Paterson will take his place, with both named on a five-man bench.

Canberra welcome back Queensland Origin prop David Shillington to the side following last week’s bye, with Dane Tilse moving back to the bench and Trevor Thurling dropping out of the squad.

Notably, the Raiders haven’t won in Townsville since 2006, when a Todd Carney field goal proved the difference in a 15-14 win. Tom Learoyd-Lahrs is the only Canberra player who remains from that clash.

North Queensland have scored 99 tries against Canberra so the race will be on this week to see who scores the 100th.  Matt Bowen has scored the most of those with nine, while Johnathan Thurston has tallied eight.

Watch Out Cowboys: Canberra centre Jarrod Croker has been their most dangerous player in 2012, scoring nine tries and making nine line-breaks on Canberra’s left edge despite his side’s struggles. He will again be the man the Raiders look to when on the attack. Canberra have scored 21 tries on Croker’s side of the field.

Danger Sign: The Cowboys can be susceptible to the attacking kick, having defused just 68 per cent of kicks so far in 2012 (only Parramatta are worse). And it is the cross-field bomb that they struggle with the most. They have defused 16 of 32 cross-field bombs this season.

Watch Out Raiders: Numbering up in defence will be the order of the day for the Raiders because North Queensland will have plenty of bodies in motion throughout this one. So far in 2012 the Cowboys have used more decoy runners than any other side with 619 runs and have also had the most support players with 681 runs in support of a ball carrier. Watch for Dallas Johnson (113) and Gavin Cooper (97) to be used as decoy runners regularly against the Raiders.

Danger Sign: Canberra’s left-side defence has been woeful this season, conceding a disastrous 36 tries down that side of the field. No other team has conceded so many points down a single side of the field this season as the Raiders have on their left.

Johnathan Thurston v Josh Dugan: After an inauspicious start to his current stint in the halves, Josh Dugan showed the benefits of having his hands on the football when he played a leading role in Canberra’s 32-16 win over Newcastle a fortnight ago. Dugan has long been a key man for the Raiders and will be again this weekend, however his apprenticeship in the No.6 hits new heights when he lines up against Johnathan Thurston. Thurston has produced 15 try assists and 17 line-break assists in 2012.

Where It Will Be Won: Defence on the edges will be crucial – particularly for Canberra who have struggled to contain their opposition out wide this season. As it turns out, their outside backs are also, somewhat surprisingly, their strength so the Cowboys will also need to be on the ball when the ball is spun wide.

The History: Played 29; Raiders 18, Cowboys 11. Canberra hold a good lead in the all-time record, however they are locked at 7-7 at Dairy Farmers Stadium. The Cowboys have won the past three games between these two clubs.

The Last Time They Met: A Johnathan Thurston-inspired Cowboys side proved too strong for Canberra as they strolled to a comfortable 22-6 win at Canberra Stadium in Round 5.

Thurston proved unstoppable as he set up three tries, the first coming after just 10 minutes when the Cowboys produced a superb backline play that finished with the North Queensland captain throwing a second- man ball for Brent Tate to score.

Nineteen minutes later he was at it again with a perfectly timed cut-out pass for Ashley Graham to make it 12-0 at the break.

Thurston stepped past Jarrod Croker to send Ashley Graham over for his second in the 46th minute before Ray Thompson scored a clever solo try to cap his side’s impressive night out.

Sam Mataora scored a consolation for the home side with 12 minutes remaining when he crashed over from close range.

North Queensland made seven line-breaks to one, with centre Kane Linnett starring with seven tackle-breaks and 208 metres.

Reece Robinson ran for 195 metres for the home side.

Match Officials: Referees – Alan Shortall & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Michael Wise & Nick Beashel; Video Referee – Pat Reynolds.

The Way We See It: It’s hard to see the Cowboys losing this one. Always strong at home, they should have too much arsenal for a Canberra side that have struggled to put back-to-back performances together all season. We see them taking the two competition points with a comfortable win. Cowboys by 10 points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm.

* Statistics: NRL Stats

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