North Queensland Cowboys v Wests Tigers
Dairy Farmers Stadium
It's a must-win clash for both sides in Townsville on Monday night, with the Cowboys desperate to stay in the hunt for a crucial top-four berth and the Tigers hoping to cling to the bottom rung of the finals zone.
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North Queensland sounded an ominous warning to all finals candidates by running the Storm ragged to emerge dominant 20-16 winners in Melbourne last week. The Cowboys' expansive, energetic brand proved too much for the side that's led the competition on its ear for most of the season, exposing the Storm as a tad jaded exiting the Origin period.
It was an important statement by the Cowboys, who had lost three of their past five games to cast a shadow over their finals credentials. However victory came at a cost, with prolific try-scoring winger Ashley Graham succumbing to a moderately severe ankle injury.
Meanwhile the Tigers got the job done against the Panthers last Saturday with a no-frills 26-18 win arresting a worrying three-game losing sequence that had wiped all memory of their previous seven-game winning run.
In team changes, leading NRL try-scorer Graham's ankle injury is expected to sideline him for up to a month, with Kalifa Faifai Loa drafted in as his replacement. The Cowboys' only other changes see Scott Bolton and Cory Paterson join the interchange, with Jason Taumalolo dropping out of the 17.
Meanwhile the Tigers welcome back tireless second-rower Gareth Ellis, who has been off the scene since Round 5 when he fractured his left foot in the Tigers' golden-point loss to the Rabbitohs. Ellis' return pushes Matt Bell to the bench.
However, in a significant blow they will be without prop Keith Galloway after he injured his shoulder in the win over the Panthers. Adam Blair moves up front, with Joel Reddy the new face on their bench.
It's a milestone week for Cowboys centre Brent Tate who requires 101 more metres to hit a staggering 20 kilometres in career runs.
Watch Out Cowboys: North Queensland's marker defenders need to communicate or else the Tigers will make huge inroads. The black and gold rank second for line-breaks out of dummy-half (nine so far).
Offloads from Tigers' forwards Aaron Woods and Chris Heignington (18 each) will need to be contained. And the Cowboys' outside backs will need to be wary of the creativity of Joel Reddy should he appear off the bench – he has made 21 offloads in just 12 games.
Woods' charges need to be halted – the youngster created migraines for the Cowboys last time they met, making 21 runs for 212 metres.
Danger Sign: The Tigers are a huge threat from close range, especially from dummy-half where they've scored seven tries (Robbie Farah has three himself) – the second most by any team. Meanwhile the Cowboys' marker defence on their goal line is the dodgiest in the NRL, conceding the most tries all year (eight). It's especially vulnerable around their goal posts, having conceded 17 tries around the sticks so far (second most).
Watch Out Wests Tigers: Eight Cowboys ran for more than 100 metres against the Storm, with Matt Bowen heading the list with an even 200. That's not good news for the Tigers who are missing more tackles per game than any team (35.4). And while the Cowboys are ripping teams to shreds through the middle of the park, averaging 5.2 line-breaks each week (second most) the Tigers are leaking 5.8 line busts every 80 minutes (second most).
Prop James Tamou will be keen to pick up where he left off back in Round 12 when he bent huge holes in the Tigers' defence. The Blues bookend carved out a personal record 228 metres from 16 hit-ups; he currently remains the only prop in the league to average more than 150 metres and 20 tackles per game (151 metres, 26.5 tackles).
Powerful centre Kane Linnett will pose a huge threat on the left edge with his angled runs and support play off Thurston and Bowen. Running like a back-rower Linnett bagged his first try double last week, as well as career highs in line-breaks (three) and tackle busts (nine). His 1842 metres overall is just 33 metres shy of Josh Morris' benchmark for territory made by a centre – and Morris has played one more game than Linnett. Tigers right-side centre Blake Ayshford has his work cut out for him – he misses almost four tackles a game.
Danger Sign: Cowboys coach Neil Henry will seize on the fact the Tigers are missing more tackles than any team. He'll make sure his forwards provide plenty of 'smokescreen' for Thurston, Bowen and the other attacking threats, with a haze of bodies in motion to confuse the Tigers' reads in defence. The Cowboys utilise decoy runners more often than all teams expect the Rabbitohs, with a whopping 691 furphy plays to date. Dallas Johnson (123) and Gavin Cooper (114) are their decoy specialists.
Johnathan Thurston v Benji Marshall: The game's premier playmakers will relish the chance to show who's boss. Even though Thurston will wear the No.6 and Marshall the No.7, their head-to-head clash holds the key to who salutes on the night. Marshall leads the way in the NRL for try assists with 26, with Thurston ranked third with 17; however JT leads all players for line-break assists (19) – with Marshall close behind (18). The precision of Marshall's boot could prove the difference – no player has put ball to boot more often (226 kicks) with the Tigers scoring 18 tries from kicks (second most). Given both defences will be focused on the support players running off this pair perhaps a surprise strike from one – or both – is on the cards. Marshall has crossed for just two tries all year (one came against the Cowboys) while Thurston is yet to cross the stripe at club level in 2012.
Where It Will Be Won: For the Cowboys it's about how penetrative their left edge can be in attack and how resolute they can be in defence, while for the Tigers the same applies to their right-side troops. That's because the Cowboys have targeted the short left side the second-most times (122 rushes so far), while the Tigers make more short right-side plays than all teams (112). However, the Cowboys also present a threat with short-side plays heading right, ranking just behind the Tigers (108).
The History: Played 25; Wests Tigers 14, Cowboys 11. The Tigers have won seven of the past eight games, with the Cowboys' only victory during that time a record 42-14 win at Dairy Farmers Stadium. The Cowboys boast an 8-4 advantage in Townsville.
The Last Time They Met: The Wests Tigers defeated the Cowboys 26-18 at Campbelltown Stadium in Round 12, notching their fifth win in what would become a seven-game mid-season success streak.
Both sides crossed for two tries in the opening 40 minutes, with a Benji Marshall penalty goal earning the home side a 14-12 lead at the break.
A piece of Marshall magic in the 57th minute propelled the Tigers to a 20-12 lead – with bodies in motion around him he dummied at first receiver eight metres out from the Cowboys' try-line, then stepped the goal-line defenders to score.
An Ashley Graham try in the right corner set the scene for an enthralling closing 14 minutes before Tigers fullback Tim Moltzen sealed the deal three minutes from fulltime.
It was a high-quality game in attack and defence: the Cowboys edging the Tigers 6-5 in line-breaks although the home side dominated territory 1656 metres to 1405. The Tigers also completed their sets at 83 per cent to the opposition's 76 per cent.
The Tigers were best served by Marshall and prop Aaron Woods who carved out a huge 212 metres from 21 hit-ups.
Cowboy James Tamou, backing up four days after the first State of Origin clash, was a juggernaut for the Cowboys with 228 metres from 16 hit-ups.
Match Officials: Referees – Matt Cecchin & Gavin Badger; Sideline Officials – Nick Beashel & Michael Wise; Video Referee – Chris Ward.
The Way We See It: With so much on the line we can't see either of these sides being anything but focused. It could all boil down to home ground advantage. For that reason alone we'll tip the Cowboys… by six points.
Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7pm.
• Statistics: NRL Stats