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Cowboys v Bulldogs
1300SMILES Stadium
Saturday 7.30pm

Are the rumours on the money? Is Neil Henry’s job on the line? True or not, the one thing we do know for sure is that North Queensland need to start winning games and they need to start now.

By far the most disappointing side in the Telstra Premiership over the opening 12 rounds, the Cowboys were expecting big things in 2013 yet as the halfway mark of the season nears they find themselves languishing in 12th with four wins and eight losses.

Certainly they are a long way from achieving their goals from the start of the year, when Henry told “The last seven years the premiers have come from the top two so we need to get up there and aim to be one of those teams to get the job done, but I think we’ve got the squad to do that.”

The frustrating thing for Cowboys fans is that they do indeed have a squad worthy of a top-two finish, yet right now they would probably settle for eighth at the end of the regular season.

So what’s gone wrong? That’s a tough question. With the exception of fullback Matt Bowen, who has failed to hit his usual dazzling heights after battling injury during the pre-season (and will now be missing for the next month because of knee surgery), there is no obvious reason why the Cowboys have failed to click. 

Up front, representative stars Matt Scott and James Tamou have been getting the job done with some good metres from week to week but, surprisingly, it is their attack that has failed to live up to expectations.

Despite the presence of Johnathan Thurston, Brent Tate and co. North Queensland have scored just 192 points this season with only Wests Tigers, Parramatta, St George Illawarra and Cronulla having scored less … and three of those sides have played a game less! In fact, the Cowboys are currently averaging their fewest points per game in 14 seasons.

Even more curious is the fact that North Queensland leads the league for points scored in the opening quarter of games with 16. Their record of falling away badly after the opening stanza is one obvious point of order they must address.
Canterbury have endured similar problems in 2013 but the return from injury of a number of key players over the past six weeks has quickly helped alleviate any long-term concerns. Having won just one of their opening six games, they have lost only once since and have the chance to move into the top eight for the first time this season should they down the Cowboys this weekend.

That certainly seems to be well within their grasp given they have 11 wins from their past 14 visits to Townsville. Just one more point will see them surpass 400 points at 1300SMILES Stadium with their current rate of 28.5 points per game second only to the old Sutherland Oval (30.5 points per game) as their most prolific ground.

North Queensland’s hopes of snapping their four-game losing streak could depend on the fitness of their four State of Origin stars – Thurston, Tate, Scott and Tamou – with all four named to back up this week pending a fitness test after Wednesday night’s Origin opener. Henry has named an extended 21-man squad as back-up with Michael Morgan, Ethan Lowe, Kalifa Faifai Loa and Ricky Thorby all on standby after playing last week.

Canterbury welcome back Krisnan Inu from suspension once again, with Mitch Brown pushing back out to the wing and Drury Low dropping out of the 17. The two notable omissions from Des Hasler’s squad are Origin representatives Josh Morris and Josh Reynolds although both will certainly be added to the squad should they come through Origin without any problems.

Watch Out Cowboys: North Queensland will have to be awake to the danger that will present itself on their left edge because the Bulldogs love heading right in the direction of talismanic winger Sam Perrett. Aside from being one of the best dummy-half scooters in the NRL, Perrett has become a real target for his inside men who love his ability to find the tryline and effectiveness under the high ball. This season he has scored eight tries from 12 games and produced 27 tackle-breaks.

Watch Out Bulldogs: Two men who will be looking to take it up to Canterbury’s star-studded forward pack are North Queensland’s Origin duo Matt Scott and James Tamou. While the Cowboys have struggled in 2013, it isn’t any fault of their starting props with Scott having averaged 146.8 and Tamou 145.6 metres per game so far this season. It will be interesting to see how they back up from Wednesday night but should they pull through they will be looking to make a statement on behalf of their side.

Plays To Watch: The Johnathan Thurston dummy close to the line. One of the key points rival coaches make when coaching against Thurston is to take the man with the ball when he is attacking close to the tryline. The Cowboys co-captain loves to run the ball at every opportunity and caught the Bulldogs napping to set up Gavin Cooper in their first meeting earlier this season. Watch too for Thurston’s incredibly accurate long ball on the left edge where he can quickly punish wingers that try to push up and in.

Key Match-Up: Matt Scott v James Graham. An epic encounter up the middle with Cowboys co-captain Scott looking to lead his side to a much-needed victory and Graham hoping to continue his impressive run since returning from suspension last month. The English international has averaged 139 metres and 35 tackles per game in his five games this season.

Where It Will Be Won: In the key positions, where North Queensland must find a cutting edge if they are to get their season back on track. While Bulldogs fullback Ben Barba and rejuvenated halfback Trent Hodkinson are gradually rediscovering their form of old, North Queensland have relied too heavily on Thurston for all of their creative inspiration. He still ranks among the top performers in the NRL this season with 10 try assists and seven line-break assists but hasn’t received a lot of support in 2013. 

The History: Played 30; Bulldogs 20, Cowboys 10. The Bulldogs enjoy the best record at 1300SMILES Stadium of any NSW club with 11 wins from 14 visits.

Match Officials: Referees –  Matt Cecchin & Gavin Reynolds; Sideline Officials – Chris Butler & Jason Walsh; Video Referees – Gavin Badger & Neil Wharton.

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. 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 Android

Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live 7.30pm AEST.

The Way We See It: It’s crunch time for the Cowboys and there is no better place for them to kick-start their season than in front of their home fans, but do they have what it takes to beat the Bulldogs? On paper yes, but the form book says otherwise. Canterbury are building and until North Queensland finally live up to their potential we can’t go with them against the better sides. Bulldogs by 10 points.

*Statistics: NRL Stats.

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