Cowboys v Panthers
7.30pm Saturday, Pepper Stadium
As the inexorable march of time towards the 2017 National Rugby Leagues finals series continues, each game in the lead-in takes on increased stature.
No more is this adage true than when discussing Saturday’s western Sydney blockbuster between hosts the Penrith Panthers and the visiting North Queensland Toyota Cowboys at Pepper Stadium.
Victory for the sixth-placed Cowboys (28 points) – who have 12 wins from 20 matches in 2017 but are riding a two-game losing streak – will all but lock up a seventh straight finals appearance, while defeat will consign them to more uncertainty and pressure.
They face defending premiers the Sharks, recent bogey team Wests Tigers and storied rival Brisbane in the final three weeks of the season.
For the in-form Panthers (26 points), a five-game winning tear has catapulted them back into the finals race, the mountain men just two points adrift of North Queensland with 11 wins and nine losses.
While Anthony Griffin’s men will be obviously hoping to win a sixth straight game, they’ll also be hoping the struggling Titans can upset the ninth-placed Dragons (24 points) to potentially put some real breathing space between the top and bottom eight.
But this Cowboys class of ’17 is a resilient bunch and head coach Paul Green and his football department have done a sterling job of getting the team up each week and firing in the face of a not-insignificant injury toll.
The team was dealt a further blow after their Round 22 game against the Storm with skipper Gavin Cooper (calf) and winger Antonio Winterstein (hamstring) both ruled out for at least two matches.
This means that in-form halfback Michael Morgan will be the fifth Cowboys captain named this year with regular co-skippers Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott ruled out for the season and Scott Bolton having led the team against the Storm in Round 15 during the State of Origin period.
Morgan was named to partner ex-Panthers youngster Te Maire Martin in the halves, the talented No.6 making the move to North Queensland mid season.
Martin has performed well in five games with his new club, the Kiwi international having suited up seven times for the Panthers earlier in the season.
With left-edge back-rower Cooper out, the Cowboys have a few options as cover.
Whether Cowboys head coach Paul Green chooses to start with Shaun Fensom or keep him fresh for later in the game remains to be seen.
He has named the New South Welshman on the interchange, but the fourth-year Cowboys mentor now has a few decisions to make as to how his final team for the Panthers game will look, meaning Fensom could start.
Shifting centre Kane Linnett to the back row is also an option, while Coen Hess could start on that left edge, as Green has some bench-rotation options in his extended 21-man squad.
Young forwards Patrick Mago and Shane Wright are in the mix, while how Green’s core forwards in Jason Taumalolo, John Asiata, Scott Bolton and Sam Hoare are to be used will also be nutted out in the lead-up to the game.
On that left edge, Javid Bowen has the inside running to come in for Winterstein out wide.
Bowen has played eight NRL games this year and if he takes his spot on Saturday night, it will mark his sixth return to the team.
The other wing option is teenager Kalyn Ponga, who has played six matches this season, the last of which was back in Round 9 against the Eels.
Whoever partners left-edge centre Linnett, though, will face a challenging defensive assignment with Penrith’s right-edge combo of Waqa Blake and Dallin Watene-Zelezniak having combined for 15 tries this season.
Cowboys fullback Lachlan Coote, 27, is a Western Sydney boy through and through, and before he came to the North Queensland club in 2014, he spent six seasons with the Panthers, playing 83 games in an injury-interrupted tenure there.
He famously thanked all his fans after a man-of-the-match performance on debut as a teenager back in 2008, and the Penrith faithful would have fond memories of his strong contribution to the club.
But he goes west this weekend as public enemy No.1, quite literally by virtue of the digit on the back of his jersey, with the Pepper Stadium crowd sure to give him a Bronx cheer with every touch of the footy.
His opposite on Saturday will be in-form custodian Dylan Edwards, who will oversee a dangerous back five including Blake, Watene-Zelezniak, Josh Mansour and Tyrone Peachey.
But the Cowboys’ Southern Stampede supporters who will rock Bay 38 at Pepper Stadium on Saturday night will have their own pantomime villain to give some curry to, with former Cowboys fan favourite James Tamou now a fully-fledged Panther.
Tamou made the move south in the off-season, and has flourished at his new home, playing in all 20 Panthers matches.
Head to head: Played 35, Penrith 18, North Queensland 17. At Pepper Stadium: Played 17, North Queensland 9, Penrith 8.
Last 8 meetings: North Queensland have won seven of the past eight clashes between the sides, including the past three straight.
Biggest head-to-head wins: Penrith def North Queensland 56-6 in Penrith in 2004; North Queensland def Penrith 36-4 at Penrith in 2013.