Round 23: Cowboys v Panthers preview
Tricky opponent looms in what shapes as a must win game for Panthers.
The Penrith Panthers will head to Far North Queensland to face a Cowboys side who are out of finals contention, but are hurting for a number of reasons.
Still in the finals hunt themselves only a few weeks ago, the Cowboys reached the lowest point of their season last Saturday suffering a 42-6 loss at the hands of the Newcastle Knights. That loss made it five straight and they now sit second-last on the ladder.
In a stark reminder that Rugby League is in fact - just a game, the North Queensland club were rocked by the news that inspirational forward Matt Scott had suffered a mild stroke the day after courageously playing on despite feeling less than 100%.
Scott is still recovering in hospital and is expected to make a full recovery, but there's no doubt Coach Paul Green will have his team amped up for this weekend's clash with a real ‘Do it for Thumper' mentality.
That poses a tricky scenario for the visiting Panthers who sit 9th on the ladder and in desperate need of the two premiership points in order to keep pushing towards a spot in the top eight. Technically, they're in fact equal 8th, but they hold the worst points differential out of all the teams in finals contention and face tough encounters against the Roosters and Knights in the final two rounds.
Coach Ivan Cleary has made a couple of injury related changes to his squad - Josh Mansour is out with a back injury and will be replaced on the wing by boom rookie Stephen Crichton who was a late scratching himself last weekend. Jarome Luai also returns from injury, replacing Sione Katoa on the interchange.
The loss of Scott meanwhile has forced the Cowboys into a reshuffle - Scott Bolton moves from the bench to starting prop, Coen Hess from centre to the bench, Jordan Kahu from wing to centre and finally - Murray Taulagi earning a recall on the wing.
The Cowboys will also be sweating on the fitness of Jason Taumololo who's been named on the reserves list in jersey 18 after missing last week's loss with a foot injury.
Last meeting: Round 9 2018 - Panthers 20 Cowboys 26
Who to watch: After starting the season at five-eighth, Jake Clifford spent a month in the Intrust Super Cup mid-year before getting his chance back in the top flight at Origin time with regular halfback Michael Morgan on State duties. Clifford returning in the Cowboys famous number 7 jersey has seemingly showed where his future lies taking control of the side, even when Morgan returned from Origin and a concussion layoff. The young half seems to be growing with confidence on a weekly basis and is starting to run the ball more, scoring tries in his last two matches.
Also crossing the stripe in his last two games, Clifford's opposite number Nathan Cleary has put a testing time of his career behind him and is now starting to play some great football. After most of the year was focused around his dad Ivan returning to coach the Panthers and controversially retaining his place in the Blues Origin side, it's suddenly become all about what happens within the 80 minutes of a Rugby League game and Cleary is thriving as a result. Already well renowned for his game management and mental toughness, it's great to see the Panthers half starting to show some attacking flair. There's no doubt more experienced halves Morgan and Maloney will have a say in this contest, but expect one of the two young halves to step up when the game is on the line and prove the difference.
The favourite: The Panthers are obvious favourites with so much to play for, but the difference between the two sides in the market isn't as great as you'd expect.
My tip: Expecting a highly spirited showing from a Cowboys outfit looking to get a win for their wounded mate and if Taumololo does in fact suit up, it could get them across the line. As it stands though he's not named in the 17 which tips the scales in favour of the visitors. Panthers by 8.