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Finally we got to see the Cowboys click against a quality (albeit injury-hit) opponent. It got a little scary last week when their 20-0 lead quickly evaporated, but they dominated the first half and showed plenty of resolve to hold off a typically fast-finishing Penrith to claim their third win of the season.

The question now of course is, can they raise the bar and back up last week's 7/10 performance with something closer to an eight or nine in Thursday's road game against Wests? Like the game against the Panthers, this one is also pretty much a must-win for the Cowboys who opted to stay in Sydney to prepare rather than return to Townsville.

Needless to say, three straight losses have dented the Tigers' plans for a top-eight finish but coach Ivan Cleary will ensure they keep believing they are worthy of a finals spot. Five wins from their first six games – including two over Melbourne – is pretty fair proof.

The Tigers have the home turf advantage in this Indigenous Round clash and need to make the most of it. They have missed injured prop Russell Packer and will be crossing their fingers the no-nonsense Kiwi is close to returning.

Key match-up: They don't wear the same number, but 33-year-old Benji Marshall and 35-year-old Johnathan Thurston hold the keys to the outcome of this round nine clash. They have battled each other several times over the years and have the utmost respect for each other. They might not ever meet on a football field again so hopefully they bring their A-games and make it a final fling to remember.

For the Tigers to win: After three straight losses, the Tigers need to quickly rediscover the secret to their early success. A big game from Benji in his Leichardt Oval homecoming would be a big plus, while his combination with halves partner Luke Brooks is also crucial to the Tigers' success – not just this week but every week.

For the Cowboys to win: If the Cowboys can ignore the off-field controversy surrounding Scott Bolton and re-produce last week's form against the Panthers, they should be able to chalk up win number four. But they also have to replace Bolton on the field and that won't be an easy task with the club already weakened by injuries in the front row.

Tigers stat attack: After losing three games by a combined six points, the Tigers went down by 22 last week against the Warriors. They have the competition's second-best defensive record but it's slightly misleading given that they have conceded an average of 24 points per game over the past three weeks. The Tigers' 348 missed tackles is the most in the NRL.

Cowboys stat attack: He didn't set the world on fire in the first month or so, but Jason Taumalolo seems to be slowly warming to the task. The $10 million dollar man is second in post-contact metres (594) behind leader Andrew Fifita (609) and fourth in tackle breaks (45). Thurston is second in try assists and line break assists.

And another thing: A lot of footy followers remember the Tigers beating the Cowboys in the 2005 grand final. The score that day was 30-16, which was a big improvement on the Cowboys' loss to the Tigers in week one of the finals that year. They were thrashed 50-6 before bouncing back and advancing to the grand final with a 24-16 win over Melbourne in week two and 29-0 boilover in week three against minor premiers Parramatta.

Wests Tigers v North Queensland Cowboys, Thursday 7.50pm at Leichhardt Oval.

Wests Tigers: 1 Corey Thompson, 2 David Nofoaluma, 3 Esan Marsters, 5 Mahe Fonua, 20 Malakai Watene-Zelezniak, 6 Benji Marshall (c), 7 Luke Brooks, 8 Russell Packer, 9 Elijah Taylor, 10 Ben Matulino, 11 Chris Lawrence, 12 Robbie Rochow, 13 Matthew Eisenhuth

Interchange: 14 Alex Twal, 15 Jacob Liddle, 16 Michael Chee-Kam, 17 Sauaso Sue

In a late change, Kevin Naiqama is out, with Mahe Fonua moving into the centres and Malakai Watene-Zelezniak (No.20) to start on the wing. Russell Packer returns at prop, pushing Sauaso Sue to the bench. Chris Lawrence will start despite failing a HIA test last week. Jacob Liddle returns on the bench in place of Pita Godinet. Chris McQueen and Tyson Gamble were dropped off the reserves bench 24 hours out from kick-off. Naiqama and Tim Grant were the two players dropped from the squad an hour before kick-off.

Cowboys: 1 Lachlan Coote, 2 Kyle Feldt, 3 Justin O'Neill, 4 Ben Hampton, 5 Antonio Winterstein, 6 Michael Morgan, 7 Johnathan Thurston (c), 8 Matthew Scott (c), 9 Jake Granville, 10 Scott Bolton, 11 Gavin Cooper, 12 Coen Hess, 13 Jason Taumalolo

Interchange: 14 Te Maire Martin, 15 Shaun Fensom, 16 Corey Jensen, 17 Ethan Lowe

North Queensland will field an unchanged 17, with Scott Bolton named at prop after having been cleared to play by his club and the NRL while he goes through the legal process relating to an indecent assault charge. Jake Clifford and Sam Hoare were the two players dropped from the squad 24 hours out from kick-off. Francis Molo and Javid Bowen were the two players dropped from the squad an hour before kick-off.

Head-to-head: Played 34; Wests Tigers 18 wins, Cowboys 16 wins
Matches at venue: Played 7; Wests Tigers 6 wins, Cowboys 1 win
2017 results: Tigers won 26-16 at 1300Smiles Stadium in round 6; Cowboys won 22-14 at Campbelltown Stadium in round 25
Points per game: Wests Tigers 16.9; Cowboys 16.7
Points conceded per game: Wests Tigers 15.4; Cowboys 22.4
Televised: Live on Nine, Fox League

Steve Turner's prediction: The Cowboys showed signs of improvement last weekend with a spirited win over the Panthers after a poor start to the season. Meanwhile the Tigers slumped to their third straight loss of the season and I can't see it getting any better this weekend. The Cowboys may only have three wins under their belt, but with too many big-game players and experienced campaigners they'll be too good for the Tigers. Tip: Cowboys by 6

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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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