Cowboys v Panthers preview

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North Queensland Cowboys v Penrith Panthers Saturday 7:35pm at Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville

Cowboys to end season with a bang against undermanned Panthers

The Cowboys will be looking to snap up second spot on the ladder with a victory on Saturday, although the Sharks will bump them back to the third should they get up the day after. Given North Queensland's strong record at home this year (8-3), it would be a significant boost for them to finish second.  Otherwise, they face travelling to Cronulla where the Sharks have won 10 of 12 games this year or could even drop back to fourth if the Storm beat the Eels. If that was to happen they would face the well-rested Panthers again off the back of two-straight losses, having gone down to the Rabbitohs last week.

Tom Dearden has been named among the reserves and is considered an outside chance of suiting up after suffering a ruptured testicle. For the time being, Scott Drinkwater has been named at fullback with Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow filling it at five-eighth in place of Dearden. In the only other change for North Queensland, Coen Hess misses the game through suspension with Reuben Cotter into the starting line-up in his place while Griffin Neame joins the bench.

As for the Panthers, well, there are changes aplenty and a few debuts too.

Coach Ivan Cleary has rested most of the first-grade side, with Dylan Edwards, Brian To'o, Stephen Crichton, Izack Tago, Taylan May, Jarome Luai, Moses Leota, James Fisher-Harris, Viliame Kikau and Isaah Yeo missing along with the suspended Nathan Cleary and injured Api Koroisau (ankle) and Spencer Leniu (shoulder). At this stage, Koroisau's ankle issue does not appear to be serious and he should be fine to play in week one of the finals, although Leniu may be in more doubt with his shoulder injury.

The Panthers field a new-look backline consisting of Charlie Staines at fullback, Sunia Turuva and Christian Crichton on the wings and Robert Jennings and Tom Jenkins (debut) in the centres.  Kurt Falls and Sean O'Sullivan pair up once more in the halves while Lindsay Smith and Matt Eisenhuth are the starting front rowers, with Mitch Kenny captaining the side at hooker. Chris Smith and Scott Sorensen (returning from a calf injury) are in the second row with J'maine Hopgood at lock as a strong ball-playing option. The bench consists of crafty hooker Soni Luke, ex-Dragon Eddie Blacker and debutants Liam Henry and Jack Cole.

Interestingly, the Panthers did not opt to rest any players in their final game last year against the Eels, running out 40-6 winners on that occasion.

"There's a good argument, there are plusses for both I reckon," coach Cleary told reporters of the decision. 

"In many respects, since round 12 our team has been disrupted but we've been able to get on track and win games. There's always a risk and that lands on my doorstep, I'm sure we'll go OK. I feel at this time this is the best option for us to prepare for the first week of the finals."

Last meeting: Round 12 2022 - Panthers 22 Cowboys 0

Who to watch: Regardless of whether he plays in the halves or goes back to the bench, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow could be in for a big night against the understrength Panthers. If he starts, look for the speedster to expose Penrith's inexperience on the edges. Tabuai-Fidow would find plenty of success targeting Robert Jennings in the centres in particular given the speed mismatch. 

As for the Panthers, this is Charlie Staines' best chance to really press his claims - be it at Penrith or a rival club. Staines has been linked to a move away from the Panthers given he has fallen down the pecking order and still capable of playing at NRL level. The 21-year-old struggled in his last game at fullback, manhandled by a brutal Melbourne defence before being eventually hooked by coach Cleary midway through the second half. It was hardly the kind of performance Staines needed if he was trying to put himself in the shop window but Saturday's game gives him another chance to impress.

The favourite: The Cowboys are well backed to get the job done against the undermanned Panthers.

My tip: The Panthers may struggle to score points with so many new faces in the team and will find it just as hard to hold the Cowboys out too. North Queensland should do this comfortably. Cowboys by 18.

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

1. Charlie Staines 2. Sunia Turuva 3. Robert Jennings 4. Thomas Jenkins 5. Christian Crichton 6. Kurt Falls 7. Sean O'Sullivan 8. Lindsay Smith 9. Mitch Kenny 10. Matt Eisenhuth 11. Chris Smith 12. Scott Sorensen 13. J'maine Hopgood 14. Soni Luke 15. Eddie Blacker 16. Liam Henry 17. Jack Cole 18. Mavrik Geyer

Referees: Todd Smith; Sideline Officials: Liam Kennedy, Michael Wise; Video Referees: Chris Butler;

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