Heading into round six of the NRL season, the North Queensland Cowboys rank as one of the most disappointing performers in the league.
Widely expected to be a top contender for the big prize at the end of the season, the Cowboys are currently loitering down in 14th place on the ladder and have just a solitary win, a narrow 20-14 triumph over fellow strugglers Cronulla.
The media are out for blood and the first suggestions that star playmaker Johnathan Thurston may have played on a year too long are starting to force their way into the conversation. While it's definitely too soon to write off the champion halfback, he needs strong performances and he needs them quickly to silence the critics.
On the flip-side, the Bulldogs were widely expected to struggle in 2018 and, to be honest, they pretty much have.
Sitting 15th on the table, only ahead of the winless Eels courtesy of a shock win at home over the Penrith Panthers, the Bulldogs have had a tough start to life under new mentor Dean Pay.
Swiftly despatched by the previously winless Canberra Raiders in their last start, the Bulldogs are hoping to upset the apple cart when they travel north to tackle the Cowboys in what is already looking like a must-win clash for both sides.
2017 - Round 10 - North Queensland Cowboys 30 def. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 14 at ANZ Stadium.
2016 - Round 25 - North Queensland Cowboys 24 def. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 16 at Belmore Sports Ground.
2016 - Round 20 - North Queensland Cowboys 36 def. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 0 at 1300SMILES Stadium.
2015 - Round 9 - North Queensland Cowboys 23 def. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 16 at 1300SMILES Stadium.
2014 - Round 20 - North Queensland Cowboys 20 def. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 12 at ANZ Stadium
Few teams have as dominant a record over an opponent as the modern-day North Queensland Cowboys do over this week's opponent, the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs.
Coming into Saturday's clash, the Cowboys have won the last five games between the pair, scoring an average of 26.6 points per game along the way.
The five straight Cowboys wins have come across a range of venues with two coming at home, two at ANZ Stadium and one at Belmore Sports Ground.
Conversely, the Bulldogs last tasted triumph over the Cowboys back in June 2013 when they came away with a 36-26 win in Townsville courtesy of a Ben Barba double and a fine performance from Trent Hodkinson.
|North Queensland Cowboys||Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs|
|1||Lachlan Coote||Moses Mbye|
|2||Kyle Feldt||Brett Morris|
|3||Justin O'Neill||Josh Morris|
|4||Ben Hampton||Will Hopoate|
|5||Antonio Winterstein||Marcelo Montoya|
|6||Michael Morgan||Jeremy Marshall-King|
|7||Johnathan Thurston||Kieran Foran|
|8||Matthew Scott||Aaron Woods|
|9||Jake Granville||Michael Lichaa|
|10||Scott Bolton||David Klemmer|
|11||Gavin Cooper||Josh Jackson|
|12||Coen Hess||Raymond Faitala-Mariner|
|13||Jason Taumalolo||Adam Elliott|
|14||Te Maire Martin||Asipeli Fine|
|15||John Asiata||Danny Fualalo|
|16||Corey Jensen||Greg Eastwood|
|17||Ethan Lowe||Kerrod Holland|
|18||Francis Molo||John Olive|
|19||Javid Bowen||Rhyse Martin|
|20||Enari Tuala||Renouf To'omaga|
|21||Jake Clifford||Reimis Smith|
The facts that matter
North Queensland Cowboys
The home side will be desperate to snatch just their second win of the season this weekend and the odds seem firmly in their favour.
The Cowboys boast a tremendous recent record against the Bulldogs and a vocal home crowd should come together to drag a misfiring outfit across the line and bag two very valuable competition points.
Halfback Johnathan Thurston has come in for some criticism for his efforts but it would be a brave man who wrote off a champion of Thurston's ilk before the man himself was ready to call time.
The Cowboys have struggled for points overall this season and their attack has looked clunky and bereft of creativity far too often for a side that boasts Thurston alongside Michael Morgan and Te Maire Martin.
If Thurston lifts at home against his former employer, he could silence the doubters with one fine performance. In positive terms, the Cowboys have been outside the top eight after five round three times in the last five seasons and have managed to play finals football in each of those seasons, so 2018 is far from a write off at this stage.
In terms of coach Paul Green's team sheet, the Cowboys welcome back gun fullback Lachlan Coote from an extended injury layoff. The return of Coote sees Ben Hampton move from the custodial position at the back into the centres and Javid Bowen, a player who has been through some physical issues of his own over the last few weeks, drops out to the extended reserves list.
The case for the Bulldogs is simple. They need to respect possession and treat the football as well as possible to be at all close enough to the Cowboys to cause an upset.
The Cowboy's attack has been stop-start this year but it has much more firepower than the Bulldogs can wheel out and should, on paper at least, prove far too strong.
Moses Mbye has been quite the revelation at fullback for the Bulldogs so far in 2018 and his kick returns will be a key weapon in broken play once again this week when the big, lumbering North Queensland forwards are starting to tire and get a bit sloppy around the ruck.
Round six also represents yet another opportunity for Kieran Foran to put his stamp on this Bulldogs outfit. Woeful conversion attempts aside, Foran hasn't set the world on fire since joining the club and now that he's had a handful of starts alongside five-eighth Jeremy Marshall-King, the pair should be building a partnership.
With Josh Jackson managing to get his high tackle charge downgraded at the NRL judiciary through the week, head coach Dean Pay has named an unchanged squad and will likely see little change between now and kick-off.
We may see Kerrod Holland drop off the bench to be replaced by an extra forward option before the game gets underway on Saturday evening.
My first prediction will be the easiest. This game will be a scrappy, tough, grinding affair with little open play excitement. Penalty goals, strong kicking games and tough tries will probably be the order of the day and the margin shouldn't go outside the 1-12 range either way.
It's impossible to tip the Dogs away from home so, despite their own struggles, I've got to back the Cowboys to come out on top in an arm wrestle.
Who will triumph in this Saturday night clash, the Bulldogs or the Cowboys? Let us know in the comments and poll below.