The Panthers entered round three on the back of two straight wins to start the 2018 season but after yet another slow start they were finally punished by a Bulldogs side that managed to hold firm and see out the contest after a blistering start while the Cowboys were no match for the Melbourne Storm at AAMI Park with the defending premiers too clinical and decisive on the night.
With both sides coming off losses, Thursday night footy in the far north offers both pre-season contenders the opportunity to reaffirm their position and bank early points in their respective bids for top four finishes.
The Panthers must also overcome the loss of star halfback Nathan Cleary in last week's timid display. Losing a halfback the quality of Cleary could play a major role in how the first half of the Panthers season pans, so a first-up win with his replacement on deck could prove invaluable.
The Cowboys are close to welcoming back fullback Lachlan Coote who will step out with their Intrust Super Cup side Mackay while spiritual leader Johnathan Thurston will be chasing his 184th win as a first grade player.
2017 - Round 23 - Penrith Panthers 24 def. North Queensland Cowboys 16 at Panthers Stadium
2017 - Round 16 - North Queensland Cowboys 14 def. Penrith Panthers 12 at 1300Smiles Stadium
2016 - Round 6 - North Queensland Cowboys 23 def. Penrith Panthers 18 at Panthers Stadium
2015 - Round 5 - North Queensland Cowboys 30 def. Penrith Panthers 10 at Panthers Stadium
2014 - Round 23 - Penrith Panthers 23 def. North Queensland Cowboys 22 at Panthers Stadium
Queensland's far north has not been a happy hunting ground for the famous old licorice all-sorts. The Panthers haven't notched a win in Townsville since 2009 when they came away with a 28-20 win over the Cowboys courtesy of a hat-trick to Michael Jennings and tries to Michael Gordon and Jarrod Sammut.
Not one Panther remains from that side though the Cowboys still have Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Scott Bolton while James Tamou, who came off the bench in that game is in his second year with the Panthers.
Somewhat more recently, the team's split win in 2017 with the Panthers winning the last clash in round 23 on home soil.
|North Queensland Cowboys||Penrith Panthers|
|1||Ben Hampton||Dylan Edwards|
|2||Kyle Feldt||Josh Mansour|
|3||Justin O'Neill||Waqa Blake|
|4||Javid Bowen||Dean Whare|
|5||Antonio Winterstein||Christian Crichton|
|6||Michael Morgan||Tyrone Peachey|
|7||Johnathan Thurston||James Maloney|
|8||Matt Scott||James Tamou|
|9||Jake Granville||Peter Wallace|
|10||Jordan McLean||Reagan Campbell-Gillard|
|11||Gavin Cooper||Viliame Kikau|
|12||Coen Hess||Isaah Yeo|
|13||Jason Taumalolo||Trent Merrin|
|14||Te Maire Martin||Jarome Luai|
|15||John Asiata||Corey Harawira-Naera|
|16||Scott Bolton||Moses Leota|
|17||Ethan Lowe||James Fisher-Harris|
|18||Corey Jensen||Wayde Egan|
|19||Lachlan Coote||Nick Lui-Toso|
|20||Francis Molo||Liam Martin|
|21||Enari Tuala||Kaide Ellis|
The facts that matter
North Queensland Cowboys
Cowboys coach Paul Green has named an unchanged 17 from the side that lost fairly comprehensively to the Melbourne Storm last Thursday night but fullback Lachlan Coote continues his comeback from injury having been named among the reserves.
While Coote is likely to play for Mackay in the Intrust Super Cup, Michael Morgan continues his path back to full fitness in a potent halves combination with Johnathan Thurston.
As ever, the Cowboys can call on a big, strong, bustling forward pack headlined by the imitable Jason Taumalolo, the ever-green Matt Scott, hard-running Scott Bolton and Jordan McLean who has been impressive since his move north from the Storm.
On top of that, Queensland forward Coen Hess is close to career-best form and managed two line breaks, nine tackle-busts and two tries as the best performer against Melbourne last week. The burly blonde Queenslander could prove a big headache for Penrith's fringe defence each time he drifts wide, especially given their fragilities so far in 2018.
James Maloney, in particular, might be sick and tired of the sight of Hess by the end of the night. The Cowboys have won seven of their last nine against the Panthers and will be red-hot favourites to add another win this week as the Panthers look to come to grips with no Nathan Cleary.
Where do you start with the Panthers? Losing Nathan Cleary for anywhere between 6-10 weeks could prove a fatal blow to the Panthers chances of a top-four finish and a genuine crack at ending a 14-season premiership drought but I'll start with the obvious, the Panthers need to ensure they don't find themselves 14-0 down early for the fourth time in as many games this season.
The loss of Cleary, some patchy form and a poor record in Townsville all pose bad signs for the Panthers who will be desperate to get things back on track after a surprise loss to the Bulldogs last outing.
In their favour, however, is the fact that the Panthers rarely, if ever, enjoy any sort of favourtism tag so being outsiders in this one will suit the Anthony Griffin and his scrappy battlers from Sydney's west.
Plenty of pressure will rest on the shoulders of James Maloney without Nathan Cleary in the side. The loss of the star halfback will put plenty of responsibility on Maloney's shoulders. Tyrone Peachey has been named to partner Maloney in the halves, but it's far more likely there will either be a shift of Peter Wallace to the seven jersey and Wayde Egan into the halves or Jarome Luai, a local junior prodigy could come in as a straight swap at five-eighth.
As always, Anthony Griffin will probably shuffle his pack right before his team is due to be named on game day.
Even with my Panther-tinted glasses on, I've got to go with my head on this one and tip the home side. Form and the team on paper both do count for something in the NRL and while they don't win a game by themselves, if the Cowboys turn up and do their job, they should get the win. Cowboys by 6.
Who do you think will win this Thursday night blockbuster? Let us know in the comments below.