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North Queensland Cowboys v Manly Sea Eagles
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

It’s that time of year when every match takes on added significance for the finals contenders as they jostle for valuable position inside the top eight. But for North Queensland and Manly this week, there is much more than a simple top-eight berth up for grabs.

The Australian Rugby League Commission’s decision to scrap the controversial McIntyre system in favour of the model long used by the AFL provides far greater reward for finishing the regular season inside the top four – as opposed to only the top two previously – as well as forcing those sides ranked 5th to 8th to enter sudden-death territory from the outset.

So when it comes to making a run for the grand final, a top-four finish provides those sides with a huge advantage over the four that follow.

The Cowboys’ loss to the Bulldogs last Saturday and Manly’s comeback win over the Warriors in Perth means that these two sides are now locked on 26 points (along with Brisbane) with the winner of this Saturday’s clash taking a huge step towards securing that top-four spot.

And what a battle it promises to be.

Despite going down 32-18 to the competition front-runners, North Queensland showed plenty of resolve in defeat and with key duo Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen in fine form they certainly have what it takes to give the competition a real shake this season.

They have also worked hard to make Dairy Farmers Stadium the fortress it has always promised to be, winning their past five on home soil.

Manly, though, are never easy to put away – as they proved when they came from 18-0 down to stun the Warriors last start.

Consistency has been the Sea Eagles’ problem of late but it’s no secret what the reigning NRL premiers are capable of. The recent return from injury of five-eighth Kieran Foran has made a huge difference, while Daly Cherry-Evans hit back from criticism over his contributions of late with a number of telling touches against the Warriors (including two late tries to snatch the win). 

However, they will need to lift from their last away start, when they were belted 32-6 in Newcastle.

North Queensland has named the same side that lost to Canterbury last week although coach Neil Henry is yet to make a final decision on whether to bring halfback Ray Thompson, who is 18th man, into the starting side at the expense of Michael Morgan. Thompson has been cleared to make his return from a shoulder injury.

Fullback Brett Stewart makes his return to the Manly side at the expense of Dean Whare – the NSW Origin custodian overcoming a hamstring injury to take his place.

His brother Glenn will play his 150th NRL game this week and will be pleased to do so alongside Brett – the pair boast a 67-25 winning record when playing together for the Sea Eagles.

Back-rower Anthony Watmough had his dangerous contact charge downgraded at the judiciary on Wednesday night and is free to take his place in the side.

Keep an eye on Manly either side of half-time: they have scored the most points (78) and conceded the fewest (23) in the five-minute periods either side of the break this year.

Watch Out Cowboys: Manly’s long-kicking game is a key feature of their successful strategy in recent times so it is vital that the Cowboys cut down the time their halves have with the ball late in the tackle count. The Sea Eagles rank second for total kick metres this season with 12,238  at 644 per game – Daly Cherry-Evans leading the way with 6618 metres. 

Danger Sign: The Sea Eagles should look to attack North Queensland up the middle because the Cowboys have struggled to defend in centre-field at times this season. While their edge defence has been solid in 2012, they have conceded 20 tries through the middle – the second-worst record in the NRL behind only Penrith (21).

Watch Out Sea Eagles: Manly can expect to have their mental fitness tested this week with North Queensland the masters of exposing lazy defenders and players making poor reads in the defensive line. The Cowboys rank first in the NRL for total decoy runners used in 2012 with 744 (by comparison, the side with the least decoy runs, the Roosters, have used just 206) and also lead the way for support runs with 749. Watch for Matt Bowen to follow his big men around the park all night looking for a split in Manly’s defence.

Danger Sign: North Queensland’s wingers should be putting their hands up for their inside men to kick to late on the tackle count this Saturday given Manly’s struggles against the cross-field bomb. The Sea Eagles rank second last for cross-field bombs defused with just 23 of 53 successfully caught at 43 per cent. 

Johnathan Thurston v Kieran Foran: The rivalry between Australia and New Zealand is rekindled with Test playmakers Thurston and Foran going head to head in a scintillating battle. Their styles couldn’t be more contrasting – Thurston is renowned for his freakish array of skills while Foran is a tough and relentless competitor – but the success of their respective sides sits firmly in their hands.

Where It Will Be Won: The battle up front will be epic. Manly’s forward pack is their great strength, with all six starting forwards having tasted State of Origin and their back-row of Glenn Stewart, Anthony Watmough and Tony Williams all a part of Ricky Stuart’s NSW squad this season. The Cowboys boast three forwards with Origin experience including arguably the best starting props in the NRL in James Tamou and Matt Scott.

The History: Played 18; Sea Eagles 11, Cowboys 7. North Queensland lead 5-4 in games played at Dairy Farmers Stadium; however Manly have won five of their past seven total clashes.

The Last Time They Met: North Queensland won’t have forgotten the pain they felt when Manly eliminated them in week one of the 2011 finals series with a stunning 42-8 thrashing at the Sydney Football Stadium.

A clash that looked set to go right down to the wire when the Cowboys took an 8-0 lead into the half-time break instead turned out to be the visitors’ nightmare as they leaked seven second-half tries to crash out of the premiership race.

And it was Johnathan Thurston who went from hero to villain either side of half-time. Thurston looked set to lead his side to a huge upset win when he put Willie Tonga over in the 28th minute, but a mistimed inside ball early in the second half set Manly on their way with William Hopoate pushing over wide on the right to kick-start Manly’s surge.

Incredibly, it wasn’t until the 56th minute that Manly took the lead for the first time when Kieran Foran threw a stunning pass for Brett Stewart to cross but from there the floodgates opened. Anthony Watmough made it 18-8 when he capitalised on a fortunate bounce to score untouched in the 63rd minute while Stewart, Jamie Buhrer, Hopoate and Matt Ballin all added four-pointers inside a hectic final 10 minutes.

The Cowboys missed a whopping 52 tackles and made just 1232 metres to Manly’s 1541.

Brett Stewart was a standout for the eventual premiers with two tries, four tackle-breaks and 174 metres while Jamie Lyon produced a game-high 11 tackle-breaks.

Match Officials: Referees – Shayne Hayne & Gerard Sutton; Sideline Officials – Russell Turner & Paul Holland; Video Referee – Steve Clark. 

The Way We See It: With so much to play for, this promises to be a thrilling encounter with both sides capable of pouring on the points. However, playing at home and having produced a number of impressive displays in recent weeks, it’s hard to go past North Queensland here. They will be looking to make a statement following their embarrassing defeat at the hands of Manly in last year’s finals series. Cowboys by six points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

*Statistics: NRL Stats

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