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7:35pm Sat March 13, 2021
Round 1 - BlueBet Stadium - Crowd: 14077

Round 1: Panthers v Cowboys preview

Cowboys eye major scalp to start life under Payten

The Panthers and Cowboys enter Saturday night's opening round clash with contrasting aims for the season.

For Penrith, the hope will be for more of the same from last year after a miraculous winning streak powered Ivan Cleary's men all the way to the grand final.

While the Panthers won't need to change too much, a full-scale revolution is happening at North Queensland under the eye of new coach Todd Payten.

The results may not be immediate but Payten has accused the Cowboys of failure to adapt to the changing game, stuck in old systems that worked when they won the title back in 2015 but have since become predictable.

There are changes to the team list too with Valentine Holmes starting on the wing, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow in the centres and Scott Drinkwater at fullback.

Penrith meanwhile will be contending with the losses of key experience in the form of Josh Mansour, Zane Tetevano and James Tamou.

The club's impressive depth though means they have easily been able to fill the void, although whether it will be enough to plug the leadership gap remains to be seen.

Penrith's challenge in 2021 will be dealing with added expectations after last year's breakout season and facing a Cowboys team that should be rejuvenated but slightly underestimated presents a potential headache.

Last meeting: Round 19 2020 - Cowboys 12 Panthers 32

Who to watch: The battle of the starting hookers shapes as an exciting face-off between the experienced and emerging.

Apisai Koroisau already showed elements of his scheming best out of dummy-half in the trial against Parramatta and will be keen to exploit a North Queensland defence that struggled last year.

The Cowboys need to ensure they do not give enough time or space to move as Koroisau has proven himself to be lethal even when under pressure, using his small frame to duck and weave through defenders.

There is a subtlety to Koroisau's work but he has a fresh challenge this week in the form of promising young gun Reece Robson.

The 22-year old had six linebreaks last season despite playing six fewer games than Koroisau while his average of 10 metres per run places him equal with the Panthers rake.

Robson has an electric running game and has showed little reluctance in the past to back himself if given a quick play-the-ball or strong platform from his forward pack.

The favourite: Penrith are heavy favourites to easily account for North Queensland. 

My tip: The Cowboys should be a much-improved outfit under Payten, who has emphasised speed in both attack and defence during the off-season. The Panthers though are more settled and won't need as much time as North Queensland will to adapt to new systems. Panthers by 14.