Panthers v Cowboys preview

Embed from Getty Images
Penrith Panthers v North Queensland Cowboys Friday 6:00pm at BlueBet Stadium, Penrith

Cowboys size up Panthers and another surprise scalp

Worthy of a prime time Friday night blockbuster, the early start to this clash says everything about the Cowboys' unexpected revival.

Coming off a season defining 36-6 thumping of the Storm, it's hard to believe that this Cowboys outfit is the same one that vanished without a trace last season, winning just one of its last 12.

Now on a six match winning streak, the similarities in the rise of Todd Payten's young guns with Ivan Cleary's homespun premiers should have a packed BlueBet Stadium rocking well before the sun sets.

In round nine the Panthers slipped up on home turf for the first time in 22 starts and will be desperate to hit the ground running from the opening whistle out of respect to their loyal fans.

Since the loss to Parramatta, Cleary's mob have rebounded in spectacular fashion to suffocate both Melbourne and the Roosters while the Blues pairing of Nathan Cleary and Jarome Luai stood up to pilot back-to-back five try demolitions.

The last time the Cowboys racked up six on the trot was in 2015, back in the Johnathan Thurston days. Now with a host of fresh faces knocking on the door of Origin selection following several big scalps, we're about to find out just how far the Cowboys have come.

Despite the likes of Murray Taulagi, Jeremiah Nanai and Scott Drinkwater toying with the NRL's finest, it's without the ball where North Queensland have made their biggest impact. Having only conceded three more points than the table topping Panthers, at 11.9 per match, Payten's team now has a finals backbone.

Although, history shows the Panthers have little to fear. The Cowboys last beat them in 2019 and the last time they toasted at the foot of the mountains was way back in 2016. Now without skipper Jason Taumalolo and reliable winger Kyle Feldt, the hurdle just got bigger. But as they've shown all season, this is the type of obstacle the Cowboys have learned to relish.

Last meeting: Round 1 2021 - Panthers 24 Cowboys 0

Who to watch: Chad Townsend might not be as consistent off the boot as Nathan Cleary but his arrival at the Cowboys has certainly helped put Jeremiah Nanai on the map. An impeccable nous for turning attacking kicks into points has seen the 19-year-old backrower, already with 10 tries this season, become a lethal last play option.

Now head-to-head with Viliame Kikau, Nanai could be in for a dose of his own medicine. Renowned for his steamrolling prowess, the flying Fijian's aerobatics were there for all to see when he out jumped the Storm to score during Magic Round.

The favourite: A frosty Penrith on a Friday evening is no place for any outsider, so it's little surprise the locals are warm favourites.

My tip: The Cowboys deserve respect for running laps around both Parramatta and Melbourne in recent outings, but both those upsets took place above the Tropic of Capricorn. It's a far cry from an icey Mulgoa Road and an unchanged Panthers lineup hellbent on eliminating every premiership threat. Panthers by 14.

1. Dylan Edwards 2. Taylan May 3. Izack Tago 4. Stephen Crichton 5. Brian To'o 6. Jarome Luai 7. Nathan Cleary 8. Moses Leota 9. Apisai Koroisau 10. James Fisher-Harris 11. Viliame Kikau 12. Liam Martin 13. Isaah Yeo 14. Mitch Kenny 15. Scott Sorensen 16. Spencer Leniu 17. Jaeman Salmon 24. Charlie Staines

1. Scott Drinkwater 2. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow 3. Valentine Holmes 4. Peta Hiku 5. Murray Taulagi 6. Tom Dearden 7. Chad Townsend 8. Jordan McLean 9. Reece Robson 10. Reuben Cotter 11. Tom Gilbert 12. Jeremiah Nanai 13. Coen Hess 14. Jake Granville 15. Heilum Luki 16. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown 17. Griffin Neame 21. Connelly Lemuelu

Referees: Ashley Klein; Sideline Officials: Phil Henderson, David Munro; Video Referees: Chris Butler;

Follow all the action LIVE in our Match Centre