NRL: Three key questions for Warriors ahead of Cowboys

The Warriors face off against the Cowboys in Townsville tonight with both sides still having plenty to play for with three rounds remaining in the NRL. Photo / Getty
The Warriors face off against the Cowboys in Townsville tonight with both sides still having plenty to play for with three rounds remaining in the NRL. Photo / Getty

The Warriors have just three games to try and solidify a spot in the 2016 NRL playoffs.

After being thrashed by the Rabbitohs at home last week, they head away to Townsville tonight to face last year's champions, the Queensland Cowboys.

A win would put them in a good position with two home games to follow, however, a loss would put them on the back foot heading into the home stretch.

NZ Herald rugby league experts David Skipwith and Dale Budge look at three key questions that need answering ahead of tonight's clash.

1. If the Warriors don't win this one, does it put their playoffs chances in serious jeopardy?

David Skipwith: The ninth-placed Warriors, with 24 competition points, still have their fate in their own hands.

But defeat to the Cowboys tonight would put them under tremendous pressure over the final two rounds, and see them needing to win both home matches against Wests Tigers and Parramatta to remain in the finals race.

Even with 28 competition points, the Warriors would need the Titans, who are currently one spot above them on 25 points, to fall in both their final round matches, at home against the in-form Panthers and away to the Cowboys.

That tenuous position is still avoidable however, and an upset win in Townsville would be a tremendous boost to both their top eight prospects and confidence, and twin home victories in the following weeks would give them 30 points and assure them of a top eight berth.

Dale Budge: It leaves them on the cusp of elimination but not totally out of the race.

The Warriors would need to win their two remaining games against the Wests Tigers and Parramatta Eels while relying on the Gold Coast Titans to drop their last two games against Penrith and North Queensland. There might be another possible route depending on other results but it would be less likely to happen.

Bottom line is a win over the Cowboys would actually go a long way to making the top eight. If the Warriors can string together three wins on the trot to finish the regular season they will play Finals footy in September.

A bad loss to the Cowboys, while not fatal, could have serious impact on the side's self-belief - this side hasn't made it to the Finals since 2011 and has faded badly in each of the four seasons since to bomb out.

2. What are their chances against the Cowboys, who are reigning premiers but have lost their last three?

DS: North Queensland is not an easy trip for any NRL side and the Warriors have managed just one win in their last 10 visits and hold a modest 5-10 record overall in Townsville.

The Warriors could feel some confidence with the Cowboys suffering some late-season wobbles with consecutive defeats to Melbourne, Wests Tigers and the Sydney Roosters, but Paul Green's side will be desperate to get back some momentum in front of their home crowd and consolidate their fifth spot on the NRL ladder.

It's hard to know what to expect from the Warriors after they fell dramatically at Mt Smart Stadium to a Rabbitohs side coming off a nine-game losing streak.

But if the visitors forwards can lay the platform for halfback Shaun Johnson and five-eighth Thomas Leuluai to work off, they have the firepower in back-rower Bodene Thompson and outside backs Solomone Kata, Ken Maumalo and Manu Vatuvei to upset the current title holders.

DB: The Warriors are better than a starter's chance but not much better.

The Cowboys have an even better forward pack than the Rabbitohs, who laid the platform that saw the visitors blow the Warriors off the park at Mt Smart Stadium last week. In rep forwards Matt Scott, James Tamou and Jason Taumalolo, the Cowboys possess a 1-2-3 punch second to none in creating go-forward, which allows superstar halfback Johnathan Thurston to get quality ball more times than not.

The Cowboys are still an outside chance of finishing in the top four and banking an extra life in the Finals so they will have a bit still to play for. The Warriors will take a big step towards making the Finals themselves should they create an upset win while a loss puts them on the brink of elimination - there is plenty to play for

3. What are the main areas the Warriors need to improve after their shellacking at the hands of the Rabbitohs last weekend?

DS: Despite scoring the first try in the 44-21 defeat to South Sydney, the Warriors were slow out of the blocks and failed to get on top of the Rabbitohs bigger forward pack.

It was a significant drop in performance from the Warriors forwards who had been consistently strong throughout the last two months as the Warriors surged back into finals contention.

The recent loss of Isaac Luke to a knee injury has not helped but front-row quartet Jacob Lillyman, Albert Vete, Ben Matulino and Sam Lisone need to rediscover their best against a Cowboys pack containing Kangaroos test props Matt Scott and James Tamou, Queensland back-rower Gavin Cooper and tearaway Kiwis lock Jason Taumalolo.

The Warriors outside backs were also found wanting on defence last week and the return of David Fusitu'a to fullback should add some starch to the last line in Townsville.

DB: The biggest thing for the Warriors will be getting the basics right.

They need to complete their sets and not give away penalties. The Cowboys have a better pack so it is imperative that the Warriors aim up with effort. Line speed needs to be there throughout - if they let the Cowboys get a roll-on up front they will find it very hard to wrestle that initiative back.

The back three of David Fusitua, Manu Vatuvei and Ken Maumalo need to be aware of kicks in behind them - they were exposed by Adam Reynolds on a number of occasions last week and Thurston's kicking game is first rate.

If the Warriors can do the basics they need to rely on their x-factor players - Shaun Johnson, Solomone Kata etc - blowing the game open or providing the match-winning play.

Kick-off in Townsville is at 9.30pm (NZT)

- NZ Herald

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