Round 16: Newcastle v North Qld preview
Make-or-break for top eight hopefuls
Coming into the contest off the back of an all too rare win, the Newcastle Knights will be out to remain in finals contention while improving upon their dismal for-and-against record.
Snatching a last gasp 10-6 victory over the Warriors prior to Origin II, coach Adam O'Brien will be conscious of his side's -131 points differential as the Knights strive to post back-to-back wins for the first time since the opening rounds.
Holding a poor record with just two wins from their past eight meetings against the Cowboys, a win on Saturday evening would see the side overtake North Queensland on the ladder ahead of a bye scheduled for next weekend.
Gaining a massive boost with Kalyn Ponga cleared to play after several false starts, NSW front-rower Daniel Saifiti has been named to back up after helping the Blues wrap up the Origin series on Sunday night, while underrated winger Hymel Hunt will line up for his 100th appearance in first grade.
Sitting outside the top eight due to a -121 points differential, the North Queensland Cowboys will be out to atone for consecutive losses.
Mounting a late comeback only to fall short against the Sharks a fortnight ago, coach Todd Payten will be hoping his team can break a worrying trend in matches on the road.
Managing a single win away from Townsville this season - and three in total since the beginning of 2020 - the Cowboys will be treating Saturday evening as a must-win encounter ahead of a difficult run against the Rabbitohs, Roosters and Storm over the next month.
Naming Valentine Holmes, Kyle Feldt and Francis Molo after the trio escaped unscathed from Queensland's Game II defeat, coach Payten has stuck solid with the same side that went down 26-24 in Round 15.
Who to watch: Having played a leading role in defeating the Knights as a Cowboy back in May, Jake Clifford will be looking to return the favour for his new club on Saturday evening. Lining up for his fourth appearance in red and blue after expediting his exit from Townsville to this season, the 23-year-old playmaker has already made an impression in the Hunter with his towering boot causing havoc for opposition fullbacks. Set to combine with Kalyn Ponga for the first time in the top grade, look for Clifford to thrive as part of a spine combination with the potential to turn the Knights from pretenders into contenders.
In a side that began the year with one hand firmly on the wooden spoon, Murray Taulagi has embodied the strides North Queensland have taken under Todd Payten's watch. Featuring sporadically over the past two seasons before establishing his place on the wing earlier this season, the 22-year-old flyer has led the way with 10 tries, 10 line breaks and 33 tackle breaks in 12 appearances. Crossing for his first hat-trick in the top grade against the Knights back in Round 11, expect Taulagi to give a good account of himself as the Cowboys look to re-enter the top eight.
The favourite: With the Cowboys managing six wins from 20 previous visits to McDonald Jones Stadium, the bookmakers are betting on the Knights continuing historical trends.
My tip: In a match that neither side can afford to drop, the return of Kalyn Ponga should give the Knights the edge they need to make a late surge for the finals. Newcastle by 10.