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Warriors v North Queensland Cowboys
Mt Smart Stadium
Sunday 4pm (NZ time)

It’s not panic stations for the Warriors just yet – although they know it’s time to push the button on their charge if they are to emulate last season’s heroic march to the premiership decider.

Coach Brian McClennan is aware they won’t get a better chance to boost their form than during this week’s home clash against a Cowboys outfit missing up to five key stars – Johnathan Thurston, Matthew Bowen, Matt Scott, James Tamou and Brent Tate – to Origin III.

The ninth-placed Warriors are yet to provide evidence they are anything more than the enigmatic side they have been in recent seasons, capable of beating the best but then letting their concentration wander for weeks at a time.

They’ve won just one of four games since Round 11, most recently falling to the Sharks in a game they let slip when leading 19-8 deep into the second half. And while other sides reel from the representative drain and increasing demands on their stars and rosters, the Warriors have no excuses. They are the only NRL club that has not lost a player to either State of Origin team. Certainly weariness should not be a problem; they’ve banked two byes in the past five weeks that should see them reinvigorated for their next two months of football.

Meanwhile Cowboys coach Neil Henry would be pleased with the progress of the Cowboys who have won five of their past seven, including their past two, to climb to fifth in the Telstra Premiership. A dominant defensive effort helped keep the Broncos scoreless a fortnight ago (12-nil) before they pummelled the Raiders 40-18 in Townsville last round.

Two competition points here would be a huge boost to their hopes of snaring a berth in the top four given their rough path ahead: after next week’s bye they face daunting clashes against the Storm, Wests Tigers, Bulldogs and Sea Eagles. Clearly this is a game to focus on.

In a huge boost for the Warriors Nathan Friend returns at hooker after several weeks on the sideline with injury. His inclusion sees a pack reshuffle, with Lewis Brown moving to the second row, Elijah Taylor shifting to lock and Steve Rapira hitting the interchange. Also, Ben Matulino will start at prop, with Sione Lousi benched.

Meanwhile the Cowboys have named Matt Bowen at fullback despite his Maroons call-up; they’ll be hoping Mal Meninga makes a decision on who will play fullback for Queensland before Sunday – if it’s Greg Inglis, Bowen will be allowed to leave camp and join his club-mates. But there’s no certainty that decision will be made before early next week.

Antonio Winterstein assumes Brent Tate’s centre spot, with Kalifa Faifai Loa on the wing. Michael Morgan will play five-eighth.

In the pack, Ashton Sims returns from suspension to take Tamou’s place, with Joel Riethmuller and Mosese Pangai the new faces on their bench. Midweek recruit Anthony Mitchell is also a chance of playing, although he has not been named.

Watch Out Warriors: No player knows the way to the try-line quite like Cowboys right winger Ashley Graham who is top of the NRL list with 14 so far. And he loves playing against the Warriors, having scored in six of his past eight match-ups.

The Cowboys lead the way for line-breaks in 2012, averaging 5.3 per game. The Warriors concede the sixth-most line-breaks (4.4). In particular halves James Maloney and Shaun Johnson need to muscle up – Maloney averages more missed tackles than any pivot (4.9) while Johnson misses the second-most tackles by a halfback (4.1).

Glenn Hall is in rare try-scoring form – he bagged just the third double of his career against Canberra.

If the Warriors don’t show urgency chasing their kicks the Cowboys will eat away any inroads they happen to make. The Warriors rank second last for good chases of kicks – while the Cowboys lead the statistics category.

Danger Sign: When the scoreboard ticks over with 14 points credited to the Cowboys, chances are the visitors are on their way to a win. Five of North Queensland’s nine victories in 2012 have been by 20 points or more – and overall when they win they have done so with an average total of nearly 32 points, compared to just 13 when defeated. The Warriors can’t let the Cowboys get off to a flyer – they have racked up 40 points on three occasions and are currently tallying their most points per game (24.3) since their grand final appearance year in 2005.

Watch Out Cowboys: Cross-field bombs could yield the Warriors points – the Cowboys are defusing these high balls just 50 per cent of the time and the Warriors have scored 14 tries from kicks.

If the defence doesn’t pressure James Maloney and Shaun Johnson they’ll punt the home side into good position all match. The Warriors boast the second-best rate of kicking to open space (61 per cent) behind the Storm.  

Johnson, Kevin Locke and Feleti Mateo are the danger men: the Cowboys can’t afford to offer them a staggered line in defence or their individual brilliance will see them gift a team-mate a break or else see them streak away themselves. Johnson has contributed 14 try assists in 13 matches as well as scoring seven tries. His show-and-go and blistering acceleration make him the number one threat. Speedster Locke has four tries from seven games and will be keen to shake off the cobwebs after some time on the sidelines. And Mateo ranks near the top of the list for offloads (24), while adding seven line-break assists and five try assists.

Danger Sign: The Cowboys can’t afford to get flustered without their stars and need to show good discipline with the football – they are the worst side in the comp when it comes to making errors (11.8 each game).   

Konrad Hurrell v Antonio Winterstein: Hurrell is closing in on Rookie of the Year honours after a blistering start to his NRL career. The 20-year-old has scored a try a game and averaged almost six tackle-breaks every 80 minutes to confirm his status as one of the most potent centres in the competition. Winterstein will enjoy the opportunity to impress at centre in Tate’s absence. The former NZ representative has scored five tries and made seven line-breaks, as well as 41 tackle busts. His dancing footwork will be tough to handle from close range – especially if the conditions turn greasy – as evidenced by his try against the Raiders last week.

Where It Will Be Won: Desire. The Warriors know their season is turning a bit ‘Groundhog Day’ and will be desperate to deliver at the business end of the schedule. The Cowboys know they have the job ahead this week with their Origin stars away but that will only ensure they remain switched on as they attempt to hold the fort.

The History: Played 29; Warriors 15, Cowboys 14. North Queensland have won five of the past eight clashes (and 10 of the past 15) but the Warriors hold a commanding 11-5 advantage at Mt Smart Stadium, including wins in five of their past six home games against this week’s opponent.

The Last Time They Met: The Warriors defeated the Cowboys 18-6 at Mt Smart Stadium in Round 26 last year.

The home side blitzed the opposition with a dominant running game, with eight members of their starting 13 compiling triple figure in metres gained. Overall the Warriors made 461 more metres on the night.

Krisnan Inu drew first blood for the Warriors in the 14th minute when the Cowboys allowed a James Maloney bomb to bounce 10 metres out from their try line, with halfback Shaun Johnson tipping the ball on to his winger who slid over in the left corner.

Kalifa Faifai Loa struck back for the Cowboys five minutes later when he crossed in the left corner after grabbing Matthew Bowen’s bullet cut-out pass.

However, some woeful defence in centre-field allowed James Maloney to stroll through a gap 40 metres out, which resulted in Lance Hohaia scoring under the posts for a 12-6 lead at the 27-minute mark.

Krisnan Inu sealed victory midway through the second half, scoring his second try off a short left-side rush and Shaun Johnson assist.

Wingers Bill Tupou (145 metres) and Inu (136 metres, eight tackle busts) enjoyed the space the Warriors forwards delivered them, while both Matthew Bowen (63 metres) and Johnathan Thurstons (two runs, 12 metres) were uncharacteristically quiet for the North Queensland side.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Dan Eastwood & Henry Perenara; Video Referee – Chris Ward.

The Way We See It: With 10 rounds remaining last year the Warriors were one of just two teams (along with the Tigers) that sat outside the top eight, yet were able to force their way into the Finals Series. If they’re to emulate that feat, their time starts now. The Cowboys may just find the competition too hot without their stars (Bowen and Thurston in particular). Warriors by eight points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 2pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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