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Cowboys v Raiders
1300SMILES Stadium
Saturday, 5.30pm 

This could well prove the pivotal match of North Queensland and Canberra’s 2013 campaigns – a make-or-break match that could propel them to finals football or send them down the long, lonely path to the foot of the competition table.

The Cowboys, in 11th position, have been one of the season’s biggest disappointments, winning only two of six games when most experts believed they would challenge the best teams in the competition. The Raiders, meanwhile, sit in ninth position and have overcome a poor start to record back-to-back victories… but they’re still yet to win away from home this season.

This encounter should establish one thing: the Cowboys have turned a corner and are slowly finding their way in 2013… or the Raiders have flung the away-from-home monkey of their backs and look capable of playing finals football again this season.

There are two changes to the Cowboys starting team with Matt Bowen (knee) and Dallas Johnson (concussion) returning after missing the Broncos game in Round 6. Clint Greenshields and Joel Riethmuller have been omitted. Jason Taumalolo has been added to a five-man interchange bench that will be cut to four later in the week. 

Injury has forced changes to the Raiders’ line-up, with rookie Paul Vaughan set to make his NRL debut and Jake Foster his club debut for the Green Machine. Rookie prop Vaughan will come from the interchange bench for the Raiders as Tom Learoyd-Lahrs starts the game in place of the injured David Shillington (ribs), while Jake Foster will start in the absence of Josh Papalii who had minor knee surgery in last week’s representative round bye. Raiders captain Terry Campese will once again start the match from the bench.

Watch Out Cowboys: ‘Hit and stick’ will be the pre-game message from Cowboys coach Neil Henry before this clash. North Queensland have been one of the poorest-performing teams in the competition when it comes to tackling in 2013. In fact, the Cowboys have missed an average of 26.3 per game – ranked 12th in the NRL. Quite simply, that’s not good enough for a team aiming to go a step better than their semi-final effort last season. Interesting fact: their only two victories in 2013, against the Bulldogs and Panthers, have come when the side missed 17 tackles or fewer. 

Watch Out Raiders: Defensively, there’s a lot to worry about for Canberra fans. The Raiders are anchored to the bottom of several statistical categories that highlight their defensive weaknesses. They concede an average of 25.2 points (most in the NRL), allow 5.2 line-breaks a game (fourth most) and concede 11.2 offloads a game (second most). For a team like the Cowboys, with a number of attacking geniuses, a run against the defensively fragile Raiders could be just what they need to ride into top form. (And, most worryingly for Canberra fans, the Green Machine are scoring an average of just 7.33 points away from home – and their last ‘away’ victory was in Round 26 last year.)

Plays To Watch: Jason Taumalolo and Tariq Sims running riot on angled plays out wide in the attempt to isolate Canberra’s pint-sized playmakers; big up-and-unders sent to Edrick Lee’s wing – the Raiders’ backline star can certainly leap, as he did against the Warriors to clinch the match-winning try; Johnathan Thurston’s trademark look-right-look-left-then-wooshka show-and-go; the Raiders working a three-playmaker rotation when Campese makes it to the field, shifting Josh McCrone to hooker.

Key Match-Up: With two electric backlines, it’s up to the forwards to provide them with room to move. The battle of the ‘piggies’ in the middle should be a bell-ringer, pitting props Matt Scott and James Tamou against Tom Learoyd-Lahrs and Brett White. They’re four of the most dominant and experienced front-rowers in the competition – and their coaches will be expecting them to lay the winning platform on Saturday night. 

Scott (142 metres) and Tamou (140.7 metres) lead the metres-gained statistic for their club – and the creativity of Bowen and Thurston comes off the back of their hard work in centre field. 

The weakened Raiders forward pack – missing the likes of David Shillington, Josh Papalii and Glen Buttriss – are relying on Learoyd-Lahrs (105.8 metres) and White (77.2 metres) to lead their charge. If they steamroll their opponents, Reece Robinson, Sandor Earl and Edrick Lee could be given many scoring opportunities out wide.

Where It Will Be Won: Minimising errors. The key reason for both teams’ mediocre starts to the season is the number of mistakes they’ve made during matches – they’re two of the worst offenders in the NRL. Canberra commit an average of 12 errors per match (15th in the NRL), and the Cowboys aren’t much better with an average of 11.8 (14th). Whoever displays greatest respect for the ball will come out on top in this clash.

The History: Played 30; Raiders 18, Cowboys 12. At 1300SMILES Stadium the Cowboys hold the upper hand, though, winning eight of the 15 encounters.

Match Officials: Referees – Gavin Badger & Alan Shortall; Sideline Officials – Chris Butler & Brenden Wood; Video Referees – Steve Chiddy & Justin Morgan

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 5.30pm.

The Way We See It: It’s awfully hard to go past the home side in this clash, particularly so when the Raiders haven’t won in Townsville since 2006! We’re predicting a close encounter – particularly following the comeback of Canberra ace Campese – but with danger men Thurston and Bowen reunited, as well as the form of their highly regarded props, North Queensland should prove too tough to handle. Cowboys by eight points.

Acknowledgement of Country

National Rugby League respects and honours the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.

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