Cowboys v Eels
7.50pm, Friday 28 April
1300SMILES Stadium

While the will-he/won’t-he game surrounding Johnathan Thurston’s availability continues to swirl, the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys are focused and ready to play some quality rugby league against the Parramatta Eels at 1300SMILES Stadium.

The Friday night Round 9 National Rugby League blockbuster holds enough intrigue – two last-start winners seeking momentum – even before the JT question is asked.

The Cowboys are sixth on the NRL ladder with a five-win, three-loss record, while the 4-4 Eels sit two places outside the top eight and will be searching for a third-straight victory after recent triumphs over the Panthers (18-12) and the Tigers (26-12).

The hosts were 12-point winners over the Knights last-start, but have dropped two of their past three matches.

Both teams have long injury lists, with the Cowboys slowly but surely welcoming players back into the team.

Antonio Winterstein (broken arm) was impressive in his return game last weekend, while Shaun Fensom (ankle), Jake Granville (broken leg) and Lachlan Coote (calf) are all due to return within the next two games.

However, all eyes will be on Thurston tonight – will he walk out of the tunnel and make his way calmly to the Cowboys’ dugout to support his team from the sidelines, or will he trot on to the playing surface in full kit and ready to rumble against Brad Arthur’s Eels?

Only time will tell but he did train strongly with the team on Thursday, getting through most of the session.

TESTING FILIP

If Thurston does play, he will have at least one game under his belt before next Friday’s Test match against the Kiwis in Canberra.

Thurston and teammates Michael Morgan and Justin O’Neill were named in a 20-strong Kangaroos squad this week, with Morgan named on the interchange bench and O’Neill as one of three reserves.

All three will be looking for composed, energetic performances tonight.

13-DAY TURNAROUND

After the last hit-up is completed and tackle effected, the Cowboys – well, at least those not playing in next weekend’s various rep fixtures – will get a long break ahead of their Round 10 clash against the Bulldogs at ANZ Stadium.

That Thursday night fixture is the first of back-to-back Thursday night games for the team in Sydney as the club moves into a challenging phase of the season where they will play at home just twice in their next eight matches.

Tonight’s fixture will be the team’s sixth at home in nine matches.

WINGING IT

The Cowboys’ right edge could be the scene of some spectacular action tonight with two of the bigger wingers in the comp coming up against each other.

Fijian flyer Semi Radradra – all 190cm and 105kg of him – will be marked by young Cowboys firebrand Kyle Feldt (191cm, 104kg).

Both men are game-changers on their night, with Radradra starting the season strongly in crossing for six tries in eight matches.

Feldt’s form has been patchy, the Townsville product not crossing the stripe yet in 2017 and several high-profile errors in recent matches, however last week was a real turning point for the youngster with a strong effort against the Knights.

Feldt and Radradra are both powerful ball returners, highly skilled and with a knack for pulling a rabbit out of the hat with spectacular finishing plays.

FIVE-EIGHTHS? MORE LIKE SEVEN-EIGHTHS!

Speaking of big, skilful men, check out the named number sixes tonight.

In the Cowboys’ corner, we have the 108kg John Asiata, who has been moonlighting in the halves in Thurston’s absence; for the Eels, 106kg Kenny Edwards will direct traffic alongside the crafty Corey Norman.

RESILIENT RAY

After being labelled as 'tough as a two-dollar steak' by his coach last weekend, veteran utility Ray Thompson is again slated to come off the Cowboys’ interchange bench following a stellar showing against the Knights in his first game of competition footy for the year.

Thompson manages continual knee issues but does everything possible to get his body right each week.

Look for Thompson’s calmness and tight defence when he comes on.

TALE OF THE TAPE

  • Head to head: Played 35 – Parramatta: 18; North Queensland 16; drawn 1.

  • In Townsville: Played 15 – North Queensland 9; Parramatta 5; drawn 1.

  • The Cowboys have won six of the past eight clashes between the sides.

  • Biggest winning margins: Cowboys def Eels 46-4 in 2015 in Townsville; Eels def Cowboys 62-0 in 2001 in Sydney.

  • The Cowboys have scored 17 more points than the Eels this year (163 to 146 across eight games), but have conceded four more (164 to 160).

  • When looking at the average running metres per player per match between the two sides, the Cowboys account for four of the top five in the category: Jason Taumalolo, Kalyn Ponga, Scott Bolton and Ethan Lowe. Eel Nathan Brown runs for an average of 133m per match.

  • Ponga and slippery Eels back Clint Gutherson have made seven line breaks apiece this season.

  • The Eels have only won once in Townsville since 2000.

  • If Johnathan Thurston plays, it will be his 299th NRL match.