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North Queensland Cowboys v Warriors
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Another huge game for both clubs this weekend, but can the Warriors make it a contest?

While there was certainly no shame in defeat for North Queensland last week in their brutal clash with fellow top-four contenders Manly, the Warriors’ season is on its death bed after their woeful performance at home to Cronulla last Sunday.

Having thrown away 18-0 leads in consecutive losses to Newcastle and Manly, it seems the emotional let-down of so many missed opportunities finally caught up with them in their 45-4 capitulation and, to be honest, it would take a minor miracle for them to turn it all around in time to reach the finals.

This week’s clash looms as a huge test for the Kiwi outfit – in more ways than one. Their first task will be restoring some level of pride after last week’s thrashing, because anything but a newfound commitment in defence will see their season come to a premature end.

But they must also contend with a Cowboys outfit with plenty to play for and a spring in their step given the impressive form they’ve displayed since the representative season concluded.

The Cowboys are coming off the back of consecutive losses themselves, although they’ve performed strongly in falling to the competition favourites Canterbury and a narrow 8-6 loss to Manly last weekend. They will also be keen to use the home ground advantage against a Warriors side that has travelled from Auckland to Perth, back to Auckland and now up to Townsville in the space of a fortnight.

The Warriors have long been a dangerous side – capable of putting any opponent to the sword on their day – but with their defence in disarray they face a tough outing against the attacking brilliance of Johnathan Thurston, Matt Bowen and co.

North Queensland coach Neil Henry has stuck with the same 17 that lost to Manly last week, with Ricky Thorby and Anthony Mitchell added to a 19-man bench.

The Warriors have recalled veteran lock Micheal Luck and centre Konrad Hurrell after both proved their fitness early in the week; however they will be without five-eighth James Maloney (knee) and prop Ben Matulino (pec tear).

Luck will start from the bench with Ben Henry moving from the centres to the second row and Elijah Taylor the starting lock.

Ominously the Warriors have lost each of their past seven games at Dairy Farmer Stadium.

Watch Out Cowboys: It is vital that North Queensland respect the football and don’t give their opponents any opportunity to attack in a broken play situation. Why? Because no side in the competition is as lethal when it comes to broken play than the Warriors, who have scored 11 tries in such situations this season (five more than the next-best side).

Danger Sign: The Cowboys might have the attacking brilliance to go a long way this season but they will need to plug their centre defence if they hope to challenge for the title. Neil Henry’s men have conceded more tries up the middle than any of their opponents in this year’s premiership with 21 scored around the sticks. The Warriors should focus on using their little men to attack up the middle this week.

Watch Out Warriors: How do you stop Matt Bowen? The veteran fullback has been instrumental in North Queensland’s impressive season to date – averaging 100 metres per game as well as contributing nine tries, 15 line-breaks, 19 try assists, 13 line-break assists and 89 tackle-breaks. The Warriors must guard him closely.

Danger Sign: While North Queensland have struggled defensively up the middle, it is out wide that the Warriors have leaked points this year. They have conceded just 11 tries up the middle but a whopping 37 on their left edge and 35 on their right. The Warriors’ edge defenders struggle to read certain plays – and that’s a massive concern against a side like North Queensland who use more decoy runners than any other side in the NRL (788 decoy runs).  

Matt Bowen v Kevin Locke: Two fullbacks blessed with speed to burn and the ability to slice through the defensive line in a thrilling battle of the little men. It’s been a tough year for Locke with injury but he was a key player in the Warriors’ charge to the grand final 12 months ago and they will be hoping he can help spark another late run. Bowen, on the other hand, has been brilliant all year and it will be his combination with Johnathan Thurston that poses the greatest threat to the Warriors’ defensive line.

Where It Will Be Won: Defence is the key here. It’s no secret that while North Queensland and the Warriors boast two of the most-lethal attacking units in the competition, defence has long been an issue for both. It’s vital that they turn up committed to defend their try-line this week… and it’s fair to say that whoever performs best in this area will come out trumps on Saturday.

The History: Played 30; Warriors 16, Cowboys 14. The Warriors have won three of the past four meetings between these two sides but they don’t have a great record at Dairy Farmers with just four wins from 13 visits.

The Last Time They Met: The Warriors comfortably beat a North Queensland side missing their Origin stars 35-18 at Mt Smart Stadium in Round 17.

The home side broke to a lightning start, with Shaun Johnson busting through a tackle after just three minutes to put Ben Henry away between the posts. Barely five minutes later they were in again as quick hands out wide enabled Konrad Hurrell to get on the outside of his man and score in the corner for a 10-0 lead. And it was 16-0 after just 13 minutes when a James Maloney bomb was grabbed out of Matt Bowen’s arms by Kevin Locke for Henry to grab his second of the afternoon.

That try seemed to wake North Queensland from their slumber and they finally crossed for their first try when Kane Linnett hit the line at speed to burst through and score.

Their momentum was quickly halted when a Feleti Mateo short ball saw Jacob Lillyman stroll over next to the sticks, but the visitors made sure they weren’t out of the contest at halftime with a bullet pass from Bowen sending Ashley Graham across to make it 22-12 at the break.

The Warriors have struggled to defend leads in 2012 and they again looked shaky when Joel Riethmuller combined with Michael Morgan for Gavin Cooper to score and close the gap to just four points with 28 minutes remaining.

But there would be no collapse this time as repeat sets on the try-line eventually took their toll and Nathan Friend darted out of dummy-half to make it 28-18.

And it was all over a few minutes later when Johnson broke clear – Bowen’s superb cover tackle in vain as Lewis Brown pushed his way over from dummy-half on the very next play. James Maloney then capped the win with a late field goal.

The Warriors made 11 line-breaks to North Queensland’s four across the 80 minutes and ran for an impressive 1653 metres, with prop Ben Matulino’s 177 metres from 21 runs a standout.

Gavin Cooper made 41 tackle for the visitors.

Match Officials: Referees – Ashley Klein & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Ricky MacFarlane & Michael Wise; Video Referee – Phil Cooley.

The Way We See It: The Warriors look done and dusted for 2012 and, to be honest, we can’t see them causing too many headaches for the Cowboys in Townsville. Although they will no doubt be keen to make amends for last week’s poor loss to Cronulla, their confidence must be shattered given the nature of recent losses and if they fall behind early here we could be looking at a huge scoreline. Cowboys by 12 points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

•    Statistics: NRL Stats

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