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Cowboys v Dragons PREVIEW

North Queensland Toyota Cowboys v St George Illawarra Dragons
7.30pm, Saturday 15 April
WIN Stadium, Wollongong
Broadcast: Fox Sports, 4TOFM, Twitter @nthqldcowboys

The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys travel south of the border for the first time in season 2017 as they look to stop the surging St George Illawarra Dragons in Wollongong.

Playing without inspirational skipper Johnathan Thurston (calf injury) for the first time this year, a new-look Cowboys lineup takes on the top-of-the-table Dragons.

Paul McGregor’s men are five wins from six matches and are eyeing five straight victories this weekend.

Their 35-10 last-start win over a previously in-form Manly side was their most impressive to date, while the 4-2 Cowboys are coming off a tough 26-16 loss to the Tigers.

Already battling a higher-than-average injury toll, the Cowboys were further hit following the Tigers match as Thurston and forward Shaun Fensom (ankle) succumbed to injury.

That forced head coach Paul Green into a reshuffle, with utility Ben Hampton to start in Thurston’s No. 7 jersey.

Townsville Blackhawks recruit Blake Leary will start at hooker for Jake Granville (leg), with the former Sea Eagle coming off the bench last weekend.

Ethan Lowe moves on to the four-man interchange bench.

BRIGHT SIDE

It’s not all bad news for NQ on the injury front, though, with Green to welcome strike centre Justin O’Neill (hamstring) back to the fold, where he will reunite with right-edge wing partner Kyle Feldt.

Several more players are due back in the coming weeks, including fullback Lachlan Coote (calf), Thurston, winger Antonio Winterstein (arm), Granville, Fensom and utility Ray Thompson.

Of the Cowboys’ casualty ward, three players – Matt Scott, Shaun Hudson and Josh Chudleigh – are long-term concerns.

At Queensland Cup level, back-rower Shane Wright (broken jaw) is two games back from his lay-off, while five-eighth Kyle Laybutt (knee) is expected to return for the Townsville Blackhawks this weekend.

FIRST APPEARANCES

Due to the injuries sustained at the club this season, Green has had to use 25 players so far, the same number used during the entire 2016 season.

Of currently fit players, only Patrick Mago, Wright, Laybutt, Marcus Jensen and Braden Uele haven’t been used at NRL level, while veteran Blake Leary will play his second game this year after coming into the team from outside the NRL squad.

Against the Dragons, Bowen junior and standout Blackhawk Corey Jensen is in line to make his NRL debut, while experienced Northern Pride hardman Ben Spina gets his first shot at NRL in ’17.

PROUD OF PATHWAYS

Jensen will be the second Cowboy to make his NRL debut this year, and fourth player to play his first Cowboys NRL game.

Gideon Gela-Mosby – like Jensen before him – came up through the club’s National Youth Competition team, the young flyer handed a one-year deal at the start of 2017.

Jensen graduated from the under-20s in 2014 and has plied his trade at the Townsville Blackhawks for two seasons before being handed a one-year deal.

Earlier this year, utility Ben Hampton and back-rower Shaun Fensom both made their club debuts.

NOT DRAGON THE CHAIN

St George Illawarra – last year criticised for their one-dimensional attack and low average points production – are the comp’s new entertainers, the Red V rushing in a league-best 163 points across six games this year.

The team also has the second-best defensive record to be leading the points differential (+81) by some margin.

They have been scoring five tries a match on average to the Cowboys’ three, with classy five-eighth Gareth Widdop leading the way with five four-pointers.

The hosts have proven they can score all over the park too – all but two players named in the Dragons’ starting 13 this weekend – prop Russell Packer and back-rower Tyson Frizell – have crossed the stripe at least once this year.

The Dragons are also completing sets at a high rate high (80%), just above the Cowboys (77%).

STATS THAT MATTER

  • Head to head: Played 28 – North Queensland 15; St George Illawarra 13
  • At WIN Stadium: Played 13 – St George Illawarra 7; North Queensland 6
  • Past eight clashes: North Queensland have won five; St George Illawarra have won eight.
  • Biggest head-to-head wins: Dragons def Cowboys 48-12 in 2001; Cowboys def Dragons 50-4 in 2000
  • The Dragons score over half their tries (14 from 27) from mid-range (21-50m out).
  • The Cowboys have scored all but two of their 19 tries from close range (0-20m out).
  • Defensively, the Dragons have not let in a long-range try (51-100m out).
  • The Dragons gain an average of 1646m a match to the Cowboys 1641m.
  • Both sides commit an average of three handling errors a game.

VAUGHAN-AGAIN TEARAWAY

He was good as a Raider, but Dragons forward leader Paul Vaughan has been outstanding with his new club. The monster prop runs for an average of 166m, makes 31 tackles and has scored two tries in 2017.

CHASING JASE

Vaughan’s meterage, while impressive, is well behind NQ’s own human wrecking ball Jason Taumalolo, who is managing to maintain a formidable 261 running metres per game.'.

The recently re-signed Cowboy-for-life made nine tackle breaks against the Tigers last weekend.