Schick Hydro Preview: Penrith Panthers v North Queensland Cowboys
Both teams will head into this tantalising Round 6 fixture on the back of wins; albeit in very contrasting circumstances.
A dramatic 80th-minute try to Bryce Cartwright helped the Panthers to an improbable 20-18 win over the Eels, while the Cowboys never left first-gear in their 36-0 drubbing of the Dragons in Townsville.
It might read 12th v 4th, but don't let their positions on the table fool you. While the Cowboys have proven their quality over the past 12 months, there is no denying Penrith's vast improvement as their new-look combinations start to gel.
The Panthers have already taken care of one of the 2015 grand finalists when they snuck past the Broncos 23-22 in Round 3 thanks to a late Te Maire Martin field goal.
Consistency has been an issue for the 2015 premiers, with the Cowboys starting the new season with a WLWLW record. All three of their wins have come at home, while their two defeats were on the road.
The Panthers have added Elijah Taylor and Suaia Matagi to an extended six-man bench, while the Cowboys have the luxury of naming the same side that easily accounted for the Dragons.
Watch out Panthers: The Cowboys have scored more points (132), made more metres (7,643) and had more try-assists (19) than any other team in the competition. They have attacking threats all over the park with wingers, centres, halves and forwards all crossing for multiple tries already in 2016. The Panthers will head into this clash having missed more tackles (38.8 per game) than any other side. They'll need to make their tackles stick on Saturday night.
Watch out Cowboys: The combination of Bryce Cartwright and Leilani Latu on the right edge has caused plenty of problems for opposition sides in 2016. The two have already linked up for two tries this year, with Latu supplying his teammate with deft passes close to the line for Cartwright to score. Expect plenty of traffic to come Johnathan Thurston's way from the Panthers back-rower.
Key match-up: Peter Wallace v Jake Granville. The battle of two contrasting styles at dummy-half could go a long way to deciding this one. Peter Wallace has been outstanding in the unfamiliar No.9 jersey, deputising for the injured James Segeyaro with aplomb. His control and calmness around the ruck has allowed his more explosive teammates plenty of time and space to challenge the line. The veteran playmaker is coming off his best game of the season where he scored a try, made 30 tackles and ran for 64 metres against the Eels.
Expected to dominate in the reduced interchange era, Jake Granville probably hasn't been as devastating with ball-in-hand as people thought. The Cowboys hooker has come off the bench in the last four games in a bid to ambush exhausted defenders. His solid start to 2016 was highlighted by a near best-on-ground performance in a losing side against the Broncos, scoring a try, running for 89 metres and making 33 tackles. Granville could be the key against a team that has produced more missed tackles than anyone else.
The history: Played 33; Panthers 18, Cowboys 15. The Cowboys have won five of the past six meetings between the two sides, scoring 30 points in four of those clashes. The ledger is locked at 8-8 at Pepper Stadium with a Matthew Wright hat-trick proving the difference in their only 2015 meeting.
What are the odds: The Cowboys have been the most popular team of the round with Sportsbet by a long way. North Queensland account for 85% of all money bet on the game and there’s more money on them to win 13+ than there is on all of the other winning margin options combined. Latest odds at Sportsbet
Match officials: Referee: Ashley Klein. Assistant referee: Adam Gee. Sideline officials: Jeff Younis and Dave Ryan.
Televised: Fox Sports 1 – Live coverage from 7:30pm
The way we see it: If 2016 form is anything to go by, then this will be a thriller. The margins in Penrith's last four games have been 2, 1, 2 and 2, with both games at Pepper Stadium decided by a combined three points. The last time the Cowboys shutout a team (40-0 over the Roosters in Round 3) they backed it up with a golden point loss to the Broncos. It's hard to go past North Queensland's competition-best attack and defence, and if you want to consolidate your early lead in the tipping comp, then back them. But if you're like me and you smell a bit of an upset, this is the point of difference game that could get you over the line. Panthers by 2