Round 12: Cowboys v Raiders preview
Battered Raiders welcome Townsville sun in pursuit of top four dream
They have an injury list that gets longer by the week, and yet somehow the Canberra Raiders continue to edge closer to the top four.
Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad's gruesome finger injury suffered in the gritty win over South Sydney sees him join a handful of Raiders from last year's decider on the sidelines.
Not that Ricky Stuart wants any sympathy. After 11 rounds the Raiders sit neck and neck with the fourth placed Sydney Roosters on 14 points. Officially in fifth spot, the 119 point for-and-against shortfall says as much about lost personnel as it does a modified style.
Waning creativity with diminished combinations has forged a blue-collar steel. With an average margin of 5.6 deciding their last seven games, the Green Machine are conditioned to go until the final whistle. Last week's accumulation of points all from kicks underlined the Raiders' clunky attack, but for Stuart, a stonewall resilience that kept the Rabbitohs scoreless after halftime brought the smiles.
And with back-to-back wins, the light at the end of the tunnel continues to brighten. In addition to the long awaited return of John Bateman and the arrival of Bulldogs recruit Corey Harawira-Naera, Canberra's final nine games include just three teams from the top half of the competition.
Up north, Josh Hannay can surely feel Stuart's pain. Having inherited a depleted roster the caretaker could do with a fit Michael Morgan, the difference between the sides when they last met.
In fact, North Queensland hold the wood over the Raiders winning six of the past 11 since 2014. And after a fortnight of improved defence and strong individual performances, Hannay needs a repeat but delivered with combination smarts..
In last week's loss the Cowboys out ran Manly, but apart from Kyle Feldt's leap they were clueless in attack. Even with Jason Taumalolo's midfield dominance the points won't flow until Jake Clifford and Reece Robson show their runners the way.
Coen Hess is symptomatic of the Cowboys' plight. Even with running metres on par with previous seasons, the former Origin sensation is a shadow of the 2018 superstar. With only four tries from his last 32 outings, the Mount Isa junior's attacking nous has been frozen by muddled lines and sapped confidence.
Now needing seven wins from their last nine to be considered a finals smokey, the Cowboys' season looks cooked. And with inexperienced talent in key positions, Hannay's coaching credentials could flourish, simply by inviting his squad to chance their arm.
Who to watch: North Queensland diehards already know Francis Molo's capabilities. And now after a season high 205 metres, so does everyone else. Despite making his NRL debut with the Broncos as a 19-year-old in 2014, with just 48 games, the crash merchant is a late bloomer. Now with his tail up, watch him go in tandem with Taumalolo straight at the Raiders' heart.
By the 13th minute of the season, Jack Wighton had already powered over for two tries. Now tryless since round 5, expect the Clive Churchill Medalist to zero in on the Cowboys suspect goal-line defence to reignite his tally.
My tip: North Queensland won't get a better opportunity to knock over last season's runner-up. Depleted, bruised and jet-lagged, the Raiders are ripe for the picking if the Cowboys break their attacking shackles. Upset alert. Cowboys by 4.