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Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs v North Queensland Cowboys
ANZ Stadium
Saturday 5.30pm

Another week, another blockbuster for the Bulldogs. A whopping eight competition points behind Melbourne just a few short months ago, Canterbury have staged a stunning charge since a 25-14 loss to the Gold Coast in Round 10, winning eight in a row to claim top spot on the NRL ladder.

And they’ve done it in style: five of those eight wins have come against sides currently in the top eight including Melbourne a month ago and coach Des Hasler’s old club Manly at Brookvale last Friday.

Ironically, the Bulldogs are now on track to give Hasler his first ever minor premiership – having finished second after the regular season on three different occasions while at Manly – and on current form it’s hard to see them being pipped over the final six rounds.

With a forward pack displaying tremendous skill and confidence, a young backline growing in stature by the week and fullback Ben Barba adding to his personal highlights reel with each outing, it will take a special performance from one of their premiership rivals to knock Canterbury from their perch.

But if there is one side with the arsenal to shock the competition front-runners it is North Queensland. Having beaten Melbourne and Wests Tigers in the two weeks since the representative season came to an end, the Cowboys have edged their way into the top four and are starting to look ominous as the business end of the competition approaches.

Having captain Johnathan Thurston back on deck is huge for North Queensland after assisting the Maroons to a seventh consecutive Origin series win, however coach Neil Henry will be particularly pleased with the performance of fullback Matt Bowen last Monday – the diminutive No.1 easing the pressure on Thurston as he ran the Tigers ragged.

They also boast one of the few forward packs with the skill to match the Bulldogs: props Matt Scott and James Tamou have been exceptional this season while back-rower Gavin Cooper is revelling on the Cowboys’ left edge.

This clash, though, provides the greatest test of their premiership credentials.

In personnel changes, James Graham and Josh Jackson have both been promoted to the Bulldogs’ starting line-up, with Graham replacing the injured Sam Kasiano while David Stagg drops back to the bench to make way for Jackson. Martin Taupau and Harlan Alaalatoa come onto a five-man bench.

North Queensland coach Neil Henry has named Ray Thompson on a five-man bench with a call to be made later in the week on whether the young halfback has fully recovered from the shoulder injury that has seen him miss the past two games.

Cowboys lock Dallas Johnson will play his 200th career NRL game this week (157 for Melbourne) – he will need to put in a big performance to help stop the Bulldogs recording nine consecutive wins for just the fourth time in the club’s history.

Watch Out Bulldogs: The Bulldogs’ outside men will need to be on their toes because no team likes to hammer the short side like North Queensland. The Cowboys love to repeatedly work-over defenders and have attacked down the short side 240 times in 2012 – more than any other side (129 down the left and 111 down the right).

Danger Sign: As strong as the Canterbury forwards have been this season, they will be tested this weekend against a North Queensland side that has averaged more metres than any other club so far this season. The Cowboys have made 25,554 metres in 2012 at 1420 per game, while their average 8.1 metres per hit-up ranks second in the NRL behind only the Warriors.

Watch Out Cowboys: No doubt Ben Barba will feature heavily in Neil Henry’s video sessions for the Cowboys this week. The Canterbury fullback has been in stunning form in 2012, scoring 14 tries and making 19 line-breaks to go with his 127 metres per game. He also boasts a penchant for the spectacular, having scored seven tries from beyond the 20-metre line and three more from inside his own half. North Queensland will need to make sure they present a straight line on their kick chases to Barba: the Bulldogs lead the league for line-breaks from kick returns, with seven for the season.

Danger Sign: Second-phase play has been a huge part of the Bulldogs’ success of late with their big pack helping them produce an NRL-high 227 offloads. Among their most prolific off-loaders this season are Sam Kasiano (28), Ben Barba (25), Josh Reynolds (25), Frank Pritchard (22) and Josh Morris (20).

Ben Barba v Matt Bowen: The two most destructive broken-play runners in the NRL go head to head in an explosive one-on-one battle. Blessed with speed and ability to breeze past the defender, this contest could well come down to one moment of brilliance from either Canterbury’s Barba or veteran Cowboy Bowen.

Where It Will Be Won: Discipline in defence will be vital here because there will be no shortage of attacking arsenal thrown about. Canterbury will look to the likes of Barba, Josh Morris and Krisnan Inu to provide the razzle-dazzle while Johnathan Thurston, Matt Bowen and Brent Tate are serious threats to the Bulldogs’ brick wall. Whichever side stays on the ball when defending right across the park will go a long way towards taking the two competition points.

The History: Played 28; Bulldogs 19, Cowboys 9. The Bulldogs and Cowboys have won two games apiece in clashes at ANZ Stadium; however North Queensland haven’t won a game at the venue since 2006, with seven consecutive losses.

The Last Time They Met: Canterbury scored a grinding 14-6 win against a North Queensland side missing Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott in Round 22 last year.

Playing under caretaker-coach Jim Dymock following the sacking of Kevin Moore, the Bulldogs were inspired by back-rower Frank Pritchard who produced a series of massive hits during the early stages that set the Cowboys back on their heels. And although it took 25 minutes for first points to be posted, Pritchard’s efforts were eventually rewarded as Josh Reynolds crossed for a simple try.

Canterbury led by a single converted try at the break but it was soon 12-0 when Trent Hodkinson strolled through and found Steve Turner looming up in support on the inside to score. A Turner penalty goal then sealed victory at 14-0 before North Queensland scored a late consolation through Brent Tate to finally get themselves on the scoreboard.

There were a number of standout performers for the Bulldogs, with Jonathan Wright running for 149 metres with eight tackle-breaks, and Jamal Idris adding 133 metres and two line-breaks.

James Tamou impressed with 164 metres for the visitors.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Dan Eastwood; Video Referee – Sean Hampstead.

The Way We See It: This promises to be one of the must-see battles of the season and it wouldn’t surprise us if the Cowboys sprung the upset. In fact, if this game were played in Townsville that’s exactly how we would be leaning – but on home soil and with tremendous momentum we can’t ignore Canterbury’s genuine premiership claims. We predict that the Bulldogs will edge home in another classic. Doggies by four points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 5.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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