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Cowboys v Panthers
1300SMILES Stadium
Saturday, 6.30pm (Qld time)

If a week is in fact a long time in football, it must seem an eternity since the Cowboys and Panthers recorded a victory. Both North Queensland and Penrith haven’t won since Round 1 this season – this match will arrest one team’s slide and continue the abysmal descent for the other squad. Who’ll rise to the occasion?

So much was expected of the Cowboys in 2013, and three losses in a row hints that something is obviously amiss in Far North Queensland. Neil Henry’s men are the first to admit they’re well off the pace, as their recent loss to the Warriors, and the thumpings at the hands of the Knights and Storm, indicate.

The Panthers, meanwhile, are in a similar position to the Cowboys – it’s just no-one expected much from them in 2013, anyway. Following an end-of-year clearance sale and a spending spree that has seen no less than eight new faces join the NRL squad, this season was always going to be about rebuilding for the Panthers. Three losses in their opening four matches in 2013 confirms they’re not genuine premiership threats, even if during those losses (against the Titans, Rabbitohs and Wests Tigers) they were well in the contest at various stages.

North Queensland coach Henry has made one positional change, with forward Glenn Hall switched back to the starting forward pack in place of teenager Jason Taumalolo, who started for the first time against the Warriors in Auckland last Monday.

The Panthers, meanwhile, have another new halves combination, with Blake Austin promoted from Windsor to play in the No.7 this week. Clint Newtown also comes onto the bench for fellow forward Nathan Smith who, along with regular halfback Luke Walsh, has been dropped and is playing for Windsor.

Watch Out Cowboys: There’s a new Panthers team coming to town – and it’s arguably the most exciting outfit Penrith has fielded in a long time. The new-look Panthers are proving the Houdinis of the NRL in 2013 – they’ve unlocked more defensive shackles than any other side in the competition and lead the league in line-breaks per game (6.2 per match). If they capitalise on their strong attacking lines and elusive runners that ultimately split defences, they’ll prove very hard to beat. Especially if they tighten their leaking defence – on the other side of the equation they concede 7.2 line-breaks per game.

Watch Out Panthers: Surely, surely, surely it’s a case of ‘when’ not ‘if’ for the Cowboys with a line-up featuring some of the game’s biggest superstars in the shape of Thurston, Bowen, Scott and Tamou. There’s no shortage of talent – it’s just a matter of them all putting it into a good performance. 
This year the Cowboys average just 14.5 points per game – a far cry from the 24.7 points they averaged last season – and their finishing has no doubt been a focus in recent days. They average just 2.5 tries per game but crack their opponent’s line almost five times a match. They may ‘click’ and blow a team off the park very soon… perhaps on Saturday night.

Plays To Watch: The Cowboys sending the ball from right to left – the directional shifts resulted in two tries against the Warriors and should’ve resulted in a couple more; Wes Naiqama and Brad Tighe demanding early ball from their inexperienced halves – the Panthers’ centres have looked threatening with ball in hand this season (each have three line-breaks, the fourth most by any centre); ‘JT’ jinking, swerving, showing-and-going, and doing everything possible to get his team on the front foot; the Panthers’ defence looking to end tackles… and quickly – they’ve conceded the highest number of offloads (averaging 12) and line-breaks so far in 2013.

Key Match-Up: The battle of the new hookers will be intriguing – starting Cowboys No.9 Scott Moore versus Penrith interchange (and former Cowboys) rake James Segeyaro. 

Englishman Moore came to the Cowboys with a reputation – those who party with Hollywood actor Mickey Rourke and break records as the youngest Super League debutant do that – but it’s fair to say he hasn’t quite hit his straps in Townsville as yet. 

Segeyaro, meanwhile, plays more of a super-sub role for his new team – as his two tries, two line-breaks and nine tackle-breaks suggest.

Where It Will Be Won: It’s a new halves pairing against one of the NRL’s most mature playmakers. Can Blake Austin and Tom Humble keep superstar Cowboy Johnathan Thurston quiet? 

Needless to say both Panthers playmakers will be keen to show their wares against the No.6 their club chased so hard – and if they are allowed to dictate terms, control field position and provide quality early ball to their elusive outside men, the Panthers are a chance. It’s a big ‘if’ though – and the Cowboys forwards will be similarly desperate to provide their attacking ace with the room to orchestrate attacking raids. 

If the Panthers’ forwards continue to lay a solid platform (they run for an average of 1350 metres a game, compared with the Cowboys’ 1292.2) their playmaking ‘Davids’ could conquer North Queensland’s ‘Goliath’. 

The History: Played 30; Penrith 17, North Queensland 12, drawn 1. The Panthers have the wood on the Cowboys in North Queensland too, having won nine of 15 encounters… but they’ve lost their past three matches in Townsville.

Match Officials: Referees – Adam Devcich & Chris James; Sideline Officials – Adam Reid & Peter Gough; Video Referees – Steve Clark & Justin Morgan.

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm AEDT. 

The Way We See It: The Cowboys are anchored to the bottom of the NRL ladder but there is too much quality in the Townsville team to be down for long. We expect the real North Queensland team – the Harlem Globetrotters of the NRL – to re-emerge this week in front of their home crowd. If the Panthers try to match them and also chance their arm this could prove a highly entertaining contest. Cowboys by 13 points – but only if they find their magicians’ capes and magic wands. 

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