Cowboys v Eels preview
North Queensland Cowboys v Parramatta Eels
With an injury list that reads like one of Stephen King's best-selling horrors, the Parramatta Eels have been slugged with blow after blow on the health front this year.
Recent season-ending injuries to Anthony Watmough and Danny Wicks have sucker-punched Parramatta up the middle, but it's in the halves where they're feeling the most hurt.
Corey Norman isn't back until Round 23 with a knee injury, while Chris Sandow may not even be back at all.
For North Queensland, this is the time to show how ruthless they can be. Round 16's shock loss to Cronulla seemed to be the wake-up call they needed after more consistent showings in the past two games.
Last week was something of a test for head coach Paul Green to get his troops up for the game after 16 days off and he passed with flying colours.
But this week is a real gauge of how badly they want it. With the very real opportunity to inflict their first heavy defeat on home soil, North Queensland should be craving smoked Eel for breakfast, lunch and dinner in preparation for this one.
Green will send an unchanged side into battle except for prop James Tamou who returns from suspension, forcing Sam Hoare to 18th man.
Eels coach Brad Arthur has some patching up to do, but welcomes back fullback Reece Robinson early from a fractured cheekbone. Robinson will replace Norman, while Joseph Paulo and Luke Kelly man the halves after Sandow's two-week suspension. David Gower and Daniel Alvaro will take the places of Watmough and Wicks.
Watch Out Cowboys: A lack of energy is the only thing holding North Queensland back from making it 14 wins in their last 15 starts. They can either be their own worst enemy on Monday or they can show the rest of the league that they are just as relentless as fellow title contenders the Broncos and Roosters. If they get complacent however, expect tearaway forwards Junior Paulo (202 running metres v the Bulldogs) and Manu Ma'u to sense that vulnerability and instigate an all-out assault on the North Queensland line.
Watch Out Eels: On current form the Cowboys almost outmatch their opponents from one through 17. But the Eels have their own problems, ranking 13th in completion rate, 13th in effective tackle percentage and last in support runs. If the Cowboys are in tune, look for their regular game plan – simple hard running up the middle, while occasionally testing the waters out wide. North Queensland is no stranger to throwing the pill around, but need not get carried away doing so.
Key Match-Up: Jake Granville v Nathan Peats. Granville is going from strength to strength and was called the league's most underrated hooker by Manly's Willie Mason last week. Granville's running game is much more accomplished (57 metres per game compared to Peats's 35), but Peats is a lot more involved defensively with 47 tackles per game compared to Granville's 27. Without their regular halves, the visitors will need Peats to step up and provide more direction in attack. Look for the No.9 to get his side on the front foot more often with an increased kicking load out of dummy half.
The History: Played 32; Cowboys 14, Eels 17, Drawn 1. North Queensland have won five of their last six against the Eels – in which they had cracked the 40-point mark three times. Prior to that the Eels had won five straight between 2008 and 2011.
What Are The Odds: Sportsbet customers are all over the Cowboys in head-to-head and margin betting where they're conceding a big start. 13+ to North Queensland hasn't been missed by punters either. Latest odds at Sportsbet.com.au
Match Officials: Referee: Gavin Badger; Assistant Referee: Ashley Klein; Touch Judges: Chris Sutton & Clayton Sharpe; Video Referees: Steve Chiddy & Luke Phillips.
Televised: Fox Sports – Live 7pm.
The Way We See It: The Cowboys' effort has become a touch more consistent since their shock defeat to Cronulla, but this is the chance to flex their premiership muscle and put up a cricket score in front of the whole nation. Their biggest win at home this season came against the ladder-leading Broncos (11 points), but that margin should probably triple on Monday. The last two Monday nights in Townsville have ended in dramatic circumstances, but another tight one is unlikely here. The Eels are in trouble whichever way you cut it; Cowboys by 30.