Forward leader Ethan Lowe says the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys are a better side now than when they last faced the Penrith Panthers.
Lowe and his teammates travel to the foot of the Blue Mountains this weekend ahead of Saturday’s Round 23 game, the fixture coming seven weeks after the Cowboys edged the Panthers 14-12 in a nail-biter on a glorious Saturday afternoon in Townsville.
It was the first game where the Cowboys knew they would be without talismanic captain Johnathan Thurston, who suffered a season-ending shoulder injury earlier that week in the second State of Origin clash.
The thrilling win kick-started a four-match winning streak for the Cowboys, but they’ll enter Saturday’s match looking to arrest a two-match slide with tough losses to competition heavyweights Roosters and Storm in consecutive weeks.
But Lowe – who played a crucial role in that Round 16 win with a match-deciding sideline conversion – says the team had come a long way in that time.
“That was our first match without Johnno and our attack was a bit off at times, but since then, with Morgs (halfback Michael Morgan) running the show, we’ve been more cohesive and had better structure, which are things that come with time when you’re looking to build new combinations,” Lowe said.
“We’re confident and although we’ve been hit with injuries, we know we are playing well and we look forward to taking on the Panthers again."
The match shapes as a crucial one for both sides as the sixth-placed Cowboys look to stave off a fast-finishing Panthers, who have won five of their past six matches since that loss in Townsville.
The Cowboys are on 28 competition points alongside Manly, just one win clear of the eighth-placed Panthers.
A win for the visiting North Queensland side will add renewed momentum to their quest for a top-four finish to the season.
Saturday’s game kicks off at 7.30pm at Pepper Stadium.