Schick Hydro Preview: North Queensland Cowboys v Penrith Panthers
The North Queensland Cowboys and the Penrith Panthers will do battle to maintain their spots in the top eight, with the Cowboys only two points clear of the Panthers on the ladder, who have a stronger for-and-against than the home side.
Johnathan Thurston will be planning to contribute a strong repeat performance, as he usually does after State of Origin games, to lead his side to victory in his 300th game.
The Cowboys will line up almost as planned (providing their State of Origin stars make it through unscathed) with the exception of Ben Spina, sidelined due to a biceps injury, to be replaced by Corey Jensen.
The Panthers have made no changes to the side that came from behind to steal victory over the Canberra Raiders two weeks ago and without any Origin representatives to back up they'll be fresh for the trip to Townsville following a bye in Round 15.
Why the Cowboys can win: The recent upturn in form has had coach Paul Green saying that it's the best the Cowboys have played all year, and he's not wrong. With only narrow losses to the Sharks with Thurston absent and a golden-point loss to the Storm without any Origin stars present, the Cowboys have been performing like a top-four side, even if the ladder doesn't say so. Jake Granville and Lachlan Coote have been the standout performers since they beat the Canterbury Bulldogs in Round 10, stepping up in the absence of Thurston to direct the team when needed. They'll need to be at their best again to make up the extra 10 per cent to cover for fatigued Origin players Thurston, Coen Hess, Gavin Cooper and Michael Morgan. The Raiders showed that a lapse in effort against a team with Matt Moylan in it can cost you the game, and the Cowboys will need to be switched on for 80 minutes if they're to win.
Why the Panthers can win: The team from the foot of the mountains have been the underachievers of the year, but are now shooing for five straight victories. Without any Origin players to worry about the Panthers can rip into training and will be fresh-faced coming off the bye. Matt Moylan will be the man to lead them to victory, but limiting Thurston's opportunity to attack with good kicks and strong discipline in defence will win the Panthers the game. The Cowboys have only scored one try from their own half all year, so Penrith forwards James Tamou, Mitch Rein and Reagan Campbell-Gillard need to keep North Queensland in their own half. They'll have their work cut out for them, with Jason Taumalolo doing his best to push his team forward, and the Panthers will need to do better than their average run metres of 1489, more than 100 metres per game less than the Cowboys' 1605. They also need to tighten up in defence, having missed an average of five more tackles than the Cowboys per game.
 Telstra Premiership: Johnathan Thurston vs Matt Moylan
Try Assists, Line Break Assists, Line Breaks, Total Kicks.
The history: Cowboys v Panthers: Played 34; Cowboys 16; Panthers 18. The Cowboys and Panthers haven't played since Round 6 2016, where North Queensland beat the Panthers at Pepper Stadium to set the recent ledger at six wins from their last seven meetings.
What are the odds: There's twice as much money placed on Penrith, however there are more individual bets on the Cowboys, so the bigger bets with Sportsbet are with North Queensland. Panthers 1-12 is the way the money is headed in the winning margin market and 60 per cent of the cash is on Penrith at the line. Latest odds at sportsbet.com.au.
Match officials: Referee: Grant Atkins. Assistant referee: Chris Sutton. Touch Judges: Jeff Younis and Jarrod Cole. Review officials: Ben Galea and Bernard Sutton.
Televised: Channel Nine and Fox League – Live coverage from 3pm.
NRL.com predicts: The improved form of both of these teams in the last two months should make for an entertaining game, and both sides have stars that can create something from nothing. Johnathan Thurston playing in his 300th game, even backing up from State of Origin, will have the Cowboys chomping at the bit and the milestone man should be able to lead them to victory, but it won't be easy. Cowboys by 6.