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Will a return to the Tigers' starting side bring out the best in Benji?
Wests Tigers v Cowboys
Leichhardt Oval
Friday 7.35pm

It mightn’t be a match-up of teams in red-hot form, but Friday’s Wests Tigers-Cowboys clash should prove exciting for other reasons. Desperate times call for desperate measures – and it’s high-stakes stuff for both sides after poor performances in recent weeks. Expect both combatants to really scrap it out here in the fight for two vital competition points.

It’s been a run of defeats, injuries and dramas since Round 4 for Mick Potter’s Tigers. They’ve lost their past seven matches, including last week’s diabolical 54-10 “effort” against South Sydney. Even allowing for missing Chris Lawrence, Blake Ayshford, Lote Tuqiri, Keith Galloway and Tim Moltzen, the excuses are in imminent danger of falling on deaf ears for the side running last.

The Cowboys, meanwhile, have lost their past two matches and six of their 10 games this season. It’s a far cry from the title threat most experts expected the Cowboys to pose, but Neil Henry and co. will be out to prove there’s plenty of life left in their premiership campaign.

The Tigers have made a few minor changes to their side that was annihilated by the Rabbitohs, with the return of Braith Anasta and the ‘promotion’ of Benji Marshall causing a reshuffle across the forward pack. Liam Fulton moves from five-eighth to the second row and Anasta starts in jersey No.13. Much-maligned forward Adam Blair moves from the back row to prop, with Sauaso Sue and Eddy Pettybourne both relegated to the bench that also includes Matt Utai and Shaun Spence. 

The addition of Ricky Thorby and Jason Taumalolo to the interchange bench is the only alteration to the Cowboys’ squad. If Thorby gains the nod from coach Neil Henry, it will be his first NRL match of the year, while Taumalolo’s last NRL appearance was in the Round 7 victory against the Canberra Raiders. Robert Lui continues at halfback in an unchanged starting 13.

Watch Out Wests Tigers: The Cowboys pushed the red-hot Roosters all the way in wet-and-wild Townsville last week, defeated in a 12-8 thriller. In fact, Cowboys winger Ashley Graham narrowly missed out on levelling the scores on the stroke of full-time! If the Cowboys play anything like they did last week – and the Tigers replicate last round’s form, where they missed a total of 48 tackles and committed 15 errors – this could be all over in the first 15 minutes. Just like it was at ANZ Stadium last week, when the Rabbitohs had already raced to a three-try lead.

Watch Out Cowboys: Surely a bounce-back factor has to come into effect here? The Tigers are wounded, slammed from pillar to post across almost every newspaper and website the past week. In the space of a few days the club – and several individual stars – has been labelled mercenaries: overrated, overpaid, underperforming.

Eventually, the words do begin to sting and, after a 44-point hiding and a shellacking in the sports pages for the past week, they could inspire a much better performance this week in front of their home fans. It happened with Parramatta earlier this season after they were smashed 50-0 by the Roosters. You’ve been warned, Cowboys.

Plays To Watch: Perhaps the biggest plays to watch are from the playmakers – Benji Marshall and Johnathan Thurston will be pulling almost all the strings in this one. The finest of football conductors, Benji loves to float across-field while looking for support – a trait that remains from his touch football days – while ‘JT’ runs on a more diagonal and direct scheming path. Both, however, need to take centre stage here – their teams require more than just a few try assists (Thurston nine, Marshall two) and a few line-breaks (Thurston three, Marshall two). They need their go-to man to get them out of their funk and lead them to victory.

Key Match-Up: We can’t wait for Aaron Woods and Adam Blair to prove their worth against two of the most destructive props in the game, James Tamou and Matt Scott. 

Last week Woods and Blair were comprehensively outmuscled – sliced, diced and cut to shreds by the Rabbitohs. (Since then, Blair has been shifted to the front row.) Woods ran for 91 metres and Blair recorded just 34 – a huge difference to Souths’ starting No.8 and 10 who recorded a combined total of almost 200 metres! Woods, in particular, would be very enthusiastic to right last week’s wrongs – including a couple of crucial missed tackles – and dominate his opponents in his final showing before Origin selection. There’s no bigger challenge than Cowboys props Tamou (averaging 144 metres per match) and Scott (also 144 metres).

Where It Will Be Won: Those little white stripes at either end of the field are what separates the Tigers and Cowboys – whichever team respects them most will be sure to claim the two points here. 

Offensively, the Cowboys (16 points per game) have proven slightly more dangerous than the Tigers (12.3 points per game). The major difference, though (on paper at least) is defensively – North Queensland concede 11.5 fewer points than the Tigers in 2013. 

The question remains, though, how much of a factor last week’s flogging – and the home crowd at Leichhardt Oval – proves for the Tigers. Perhaps they’ve learned their lessons, licked their wounds and are finally ready to play some semi-decent football again. For Wests Tigers fans at least, here’s hoping!

The History: Played 26; Wests Tigers 14, Cowboys 12. At Leichhardt Stadium the Tigers, unsurprisingly, hold a 4-1 advantage. 

Match Officials: Referees – Jason Robinson & Gavin Morris; Sideline Officials – Dave Ryan & Dave Munro; Video Referees – Chris Ward & Luke Patten.

NRL Live 2013 App: Gives you access to every NRL game this season on your iPhone or Android smartphone as it’s being broadcast on TV, with up to six live games each week including the Wests Tigers v Cowboys clash. Plus latest live scores, breaking news, comprehensive match highlights and full match replays.

Download the NRL Live 2013 App and watch every NRL match on your Smart Phone. Download now for iPhone or Andriod

Televised: Channel 9 – Live 7.30pm (NSW); Delayed – 9.30pm (Qld).

The Way We See It: We just love an underdog… but as much as we are hopeful for their fans, we can’t see the home side getting the chocolates here. The Tigers are just missing too many big names – and big bodies – to challenge the Cowboys’ big boppers and brilliant backs. No-one can truly blame them, either. North Queensland by 10 points.

*Statistics: NRL Stats.

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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