If the Cowboys weren't already in a battle to avoid the wooden spoon, that officially changed when last week's home loss to the Dragons left them in a three-way tie for last place with the Eels and Bulldogs.
It was never meant to be like this in the great Johnathan Thurston's farewell season. Thurston himself must've had visions of a fairy tale ending after the Cowboys were able to reach last year's grand final without him, but they have been a shadow of their former selves in 2018 and now have a battle on their hands to steer clear of finishing dead last.
Thurston obviously deserves a far more glorious send-off but won't be the first sporting legend to go out on a low point. While the Cows can't make the finals, they have to stick together and give their best effort over the final six games out and hope that's enough to at least send JT out on a winning note.
The Knights have won their past two with Mitchell Pearce back in the line-up and should feel good about their chances of scoring a rare win in Townsville, especially if Kalyn Ponga returns as expected.
Match: Cowboys v Knights
Round 20 -
Venue: 1300SMILES Stadium
- Fox League
- LIVE PASS
Key match-up: They've had plenty of battles over the years, including on the Origin stage, and Friday night's game will be the last time Thurston lines up opposite Pearce. Thurston put his hand up after a poor performance last week against the Dragons and is too proud to produce a similarly ineffective display two weeks in a row. Pearce has been a guiding light for the Knights and you have to wonder if they would be more in the mix for atop eight finish if Pearce hadn't missed a large chunk of the season through injury.
For the Cowboys to win: Rookie playmaker Jake Clifford has been given another shot in the side and it's a good move as the Cowboys need someone other than Thurston to create scoring chances. Clifford was obviously nervous in last week's NRL debut but would love another crack now that he has his first game under his belt.
For the Knights to win: After five straight home games the Knights are finally on the road again and confidence should be high after solid comeback wins in the past two games. Pearce has to continue to play at a high level (he hasn't shown any rust from his injury layoff) and see if he can get his team on the front foot early rather than playing from behind. Coach Nathan Brown will be counting on Connor Watson to be as dynamic as he was last week, while Ponga's likely return provides an immeasurable boost.
Cowboys Stat Attack: 1300Smiles Stadium has not been a fortress for the Cowboys this season, with North Queensland losing their past five games at the ground, but they do have a successful recent record there against Newcastle who have won just once in their past six trips to Townsville.
Knights Stat Attack: Newcastle have the best set completion rate in the Telstra Premiership this season with 80%. The Cowboys were the best in the competition last year, alongside the Warriors, also with 80%.
And another thing: The Cowboys are down near the bottom of the ladder, but Thurston is still one of the game's best running playmakers, engaging the line 89 times this season (first in the NRL), while Jason Taumalolo heads the competition in post-contact metres (1,345). Thurston is also on top in line-break assists (14). Unfortunately the Cows have committed more negative errors (205) than any other team.
Fullback for Cowboys is number 1 Te Maire MartinFullback for Knights is number 1 Kalyn Ponga
Winger for Cowboys is number 2 Kyle FeldtWinger for Knights is number 2 Ken Sio
Centre for Cowboys is number 3 Enari TualaCentre for Knights is number 3 Sione Mata'utia
Centre for Cowboys is number 4 Kane LinnettCentre for Knights is number 4 Nathan Ross
Winger for Cowboys is number 5 Justin O'NeillWinger for Knights is number 5 Shaun Kenny-Dowall
Five-Eighth for Cowboys is number 6 Jake CliffordFive-Eighth for Knights is number 20 Jack Cogger
Halfback for Cowboys is number 7 Johnathan ThurstonHalfback for Knights is number 7 Mitchell Pearce
Prop for Cowboys is number 8 John AsiataProp for Knights is number 8 Jacob Lillyman
Hooker for Cowboys is number 9 Jake GranvilleHooker for Knights is number 9 Danny Levi
Prop for Cowboys is number 21 Jordan McLeanProp for Knights is number 10 Daniel Saifiti
2nd Row for Cowboys is number 11 Gavin Cooper2nd Row for Knights is number 11 Lachlan Fitzgibbon
2nd Row for Cowboys is number 12 Coen Hess2nd Row for Knights is number 12 Mitchell Barnett
Lock for Cowboys is number 13 Jason TaumaloloLock for Knights is number 13 Aidan Guerra
Interchange for Cowboys is number 10 Scott BoltonInterchange for Knights is number 14 Jamie Buhrer
Interchange for Cowboys is number 14 Ben HamptonInterchange for Knights is number 15 Chris Heighington
Interchange for Cowboys is number 15 Shaun FensomInterchange for Knights is number 16 Josh King
Interchange for Cowboys is number 18 Matthew ScottInterchange for Knights is number 17 Herman Ese'ese
Cowboys: Jordan McLean returns from a foot injury to start at prop and Matt Scott from a neck injury on the bench. Scott Bolton drops to the interchange with Corey Jenson and Mitchell Dunn droping out of the side. Ethan Lowe and Francis Molo dropped off the extended bench 24 hours before kick off.
Knights: Connor Watson is out with a groin injury, with Jack Cogger to start at five-eighth. Cory Denniss drops off the extended bench. Kalyn Ponga (ankle) and Sione Mata'utia (eye socket) will play. Nick Meaney and JJ Felise were the other squad members omitted from Tuesday's list.
Head-to-head: Played 36; Knights 19 wins, Cowboys 17 wins
Previous result: Cowboys won 24-12 at 1300Smiles Stadium in round 8, 2017
Points per game: Cowboys 15.8; Knights 18.3
Points conceded per game: Cowboys 21.5; Knights 26.0
Televised: Live on Nine, Fox League
Petero Civoniceva's prediction: Great effort and fightback by Newcastle to win after being down by 14 last week and it's obvious Mitchell Pearce has added leadership and direction over the past two weeks. But I'm thinking that it's all about pride now for the Cowboys and they'd be filthy with the position they're in at the moment. They're a proud team and they're running out of opportunities to send Johnathan Thurston out on a high note.
Tip: Cowboys by 8