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North Queensland Cowboys v Newcastle Knights
Dairy Farmers Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

One of four games this weekend with significant top-eight ramifications for both sides, it’s a case of now or never for Newcastle who find themselves in the situation of not only have to beat the Cowboys, but win well if they hope to keep their finals hopes alive.

And that’s no simple task against one of the hottest attacking sides in the NRL.

North Queensland’s 32-22 win over St George Illawarra on Monday night has eased the pressure on Neil Henry’s men. Guaranteed a spot in September, they can now focus all of their energies on pushing for a top-four berth; with this week’s game against the Knights and a trip to Cronulla next week they will consider themselves a very real chance of stealing a home ground advantage for week one of the finals.

But it’s an uphill battle for Newcastle as they look to keep Wayne Bennett’s record of 20 consecutive finals series going.

Of the five sides still battling it out for the last two finals spots, only Canberra hold a worst for-and-against than the Knights – and they currently sit two points above them on the NRL ladder.

That means that even if Newcastle manage consecutive wins to finish the regular season, just scraping home might not be enough. Still, it’s remarkable that they are even in the hunt given how far behind the eight-ball they were just a few months back.

The Knights will take confidence from the fact that they have won four of their past six games with their only losses coming against competition hot-shots Canterbury and Manly. And while both of their remaining games are also against top-four contenders in the Cowboys and Souths, a 32-6 thrashing of Manly in Round 19 and 26-4 win over Cronulla two weeks ago show that they have big performances in them.

Notably, the Knights defeated North Queensland in their last visit to Dairy Farmers Stadium early last year – although the Cowboys have proven hard to beat at home in 2012 with six wins from their last seven games.

Who will rise to the occasion this time around?

Cowboys coach Neil Henry has named the same squad that downed St George Illawarra on Monday night, with Joel Riethmuller added to form a five-man bench.

James McManus returns to the starting side for Newcastle after missing five weeks with a fractured eye socket, with Kevin Naiqama dropping back to a five-man bench. Both sides will omit a player later in the week.

Ashley Graham is poised to become just the third North Queensland player to score 20 tries in a season, following on from Matt Bowen and Matt Sing. He also sits just three tries behind Bowen’s club record for most tries in a season (22 set in 2007).

Akuila Uate is also close to a rare feat. Two more tries will see him join Nathan Blacklock (1998-2001) as the only men to have scored 20 tries in three consecutive seasons.
Knights forward Zeb Taia will play his 100th game for the club.

Watch Out Cowboys: No side relies on the hard work of their wingers quite like the Knights, with Akuila Uate and James McManus the masters at easing the load on their big forwards. Uate averages 147 metres per game and has scored 18 tries from 20 games this season while McManus has averaged 117 metres and added 10 tries from 17 appearances. For the record Kevin Naiqama, like Uate, has averaged 147 metres, with seven tries scored from eight games.

Danger Sign: Newcastle rarely defer to the kick as their first attacking option, having scored fewer tries from the boot than any other side in 2012 (just eight), however they would be well served putting the ball high at every opportunity this Saturday. North Queensland’s back three of Matt Bowen, Ashley Graham and Antonio Winterstein boast the worst record in the Telstra Premiership under the bomb, with the trio struggling to just 45 of 80 defused at 56.3 per cent.

Watch Out Knights: North Queensland boast much of their game around speed so it is vital that the Knights work particularly hard to win the tackle this weekend. Notably, the Cowboys rank first in the NRL for fast play-the-balls this season with 494 of them at 16.4 per cent.

Danger Sign: Before Newcastle think about scoring points they’ll need to get their defence right – and no side tests an opposition defensive line quite like the Cowboys. They rank first in any number of key attacking categories in 2012 including total line-breaks (119), line-break assists from a pass (61), metres gained (1428 per game) as well as decoys runs used (840) and support players looming up (800). It’s a lot to contend with.

Matt Bowen v Darius Boyd: Before Greg Inglis stepped up to fill the void left by the injured Billy Slater in State of Origin III, both Matt Bowen and Darius Boyd were touted as genuine options for the Maroons’ No.1 jersey. This is also a contrast of styles – Bowen’s playmaking skills and ability to capitalise on broken play situations, versus Boyd’s structured attack and preference for chiming into a sweeping backline move.

Where It Will Be Won: Both sides need to work on their defence and a big effort this week by either would go a long way towards securing victory. While the onus would seem to be on the Knights to hold out North Queensland’s array of attacking options, the Cowboys have also shown that they can leak points, with coach Neil Henry admitting after Monday night’s win over the Dragons that their defence remained a work in progress. They must plug the leaks.

The History: Played 27; Knights 16, Cowboys 11. Newcastle have performed well at Dairy Farmers over the years, with six wins and six losses from their 12 visits, although North Queensland have won the past two games played between these clubs (both at Hunter Stadium).

The Last Time They Met: A ruthless second-half performance powered North Queensland to a 32-12 win at Hunter Stadium in Round 10 this year.

They had to overcome a slow start to get there however with both Timana Tahu and Neville Costigan held up over the line in the opening even minutes before the Knights took an early 6-0 lead when Darius Boyd raced through to send Junior Sa’u across.

The visitors hit back strongly. First Ashley Graham finished off a nice backline move to score in the right-hand corner, then Brent Tate raced clear on the same edge before finding Ray Thompson backing up on the inside.

A strong Chris Houston effort just before the half-time break saw scores level at 12 apiece, but it was all one-way traffic in the second half as the Cowboys scored three unanswered tries.

In the 57th minute, Johnathan Thurston’s close-range chip was deflected into the arms of Michael Morgan to break the deadlock and give his side the edge. Thurston was at it again six minutes later with a brilliant cut-out pass for Graham to score his second. 

The captain then extended the lead to 14 with an easy penalty goal after Matt Bowen was pulled back when he looked certain to score and the Cowboys put the icing on the cake with a remarkable last-second try that saw the ball toed ahead four times before Gavin Cooper won the race to make it 32-12.

Newcastle paid the price for completing just 69 per cent of their sets, despite big-name recruit Boyd producing his best game of the season with 201 metres from 18 runs and 40 touches.

Thurston and Tate both finished the game with two try assists while prop James Tamou ran for 170 metres and Dallas Johnson produced 50 tackles.

Match Officials: Referees – Ben Cummins & Brett Suttor; Sideline Officials – Steve Carrall & Chris Butler; Video Referee – Bernard Sutton. 

The Way We See It: Newcastle will be desperate to win but we just can’t see them downing the Cowboys away from home. The Johnathan Thurston-Matt Bowen combination has been in fine form this season and with backs Brent Tate, Ashley Graham, Kane Linnett and Michael Morgan all contributing they should have to many weapons for Wayne Bennett’s men. Cowboys by eight points.

Televised: Fox Sports 2 – Live 7.30pm.

*Statistics: NRL Stats
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