Panthers clash set to test Cowboys’ NRL finals credentials

Without a doubt the most improved team of this season have been the Cowboys.

North Queensland, who struggled to adjust to life after Johnathan Thurston, have won eight of their 11 matches to sit third on the ladder as we approach the halfway mark of the season.

They could so easily be 10-1, as their opponents the Panthers are, if not for narrow losses to the Bulldogs and Warriors in Rounds 1 and 5 respectively.

Their only other loss for the season was a 28-4 loss to the Roosters at home in Round 4, which has proven to be a turning point in the club’s progress under Todd Payten, who is in his second year as head coach.

Though they lost to the Warriors in golden point the following week, it was still a sign of good things to come.

Last week they made it six wins in a row, handing the Melbourne Storm a 36-6 defeat in front of the largest ever crowd to turn up for a rugby league match at QCB Stadium since its doors opened in 2020.

They led 12-6 at halftime, but despite game-ending knee injuries to premiership players Jason Taumalolo and Kyle Feldt, the Cowboys ran riot in the second half with four unanswered tries, while also being denied another two (one through double movement).

While the Cows scored 30 points or more for a fifth consecutive week, the Storm were without Ryan Papenhuyzen and Jahrome Hughes due to injury.

It marked North Queensland’s first win against Melbourne since the 2015 preliminary final, and will give them the confidence they need as they tackle the ultimate test – taking on the top-of-the-table Panthers at the foot of the mountains this Friday night.

The six-match winning streak they will take into round 12 is their longest in six years, and another win would make this their longest undefeated run since their premiership year of 2015, when they won 11 in a row.

Penrith shook off some indifferent preseason form, winning ten of their first 11 matches, with the only defeat being by only two points against the Eels at home in Round 9.

In the past fortnight, the Mountain Men have hit back with a vengeance, first thrashing the Storm by 32-6 in Magic Round before beating the Roosters for a fifth straight time last Saturday night, notching up their first win at the SCG since 1985 in the process.

Jarome Luai and Isaah Yeo were among the Panthers’ best and their good form would be welcome news for NSW coach Brad Fittler, who has had to contend with injuries to key players.

Jarome Luai of the Panthers celebrates with teammates

Jarome Luai of the Panthers (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

Friday night’s clash will be a battle of the two best defences in the competition, with the Panthers having conceded just three points fewer than the Cowboys (128 to 131).

North Queensland would be hoping to avoid a repeat of last year’s Round 1 trip to Penrith, where they copped a 24-0 defeat in what was Payten’s first match as head coach of the club after crossing over from the Warriors during the 2020-21 off-season.

But after finishing second-last in 2021, with seven wins, the Cowboys have already won one more match than last year and are genuine finals contenders.

For Payten and his side, facing the Panthers is the ultimate test of where they are at as a club, and they’ll surely want to take a leaf out of the Eels’ books if they are to cause a major boilover.

But they’ll have to contend without Taumalolo and Feldt due to the aforementioned knee injuries, with the latter out for up to six weeks, meaning he also misses out on the State of Origin series.

It will be a huge night for the NRL’s Queensland contingent, with the southeast Queensland Derby between the Brisbane Broncos and Gold Coast Titans taking place later that evening.

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