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The Warriors host the Cowboys at Central Coast Stadium on Friday night in what looms as a do-or-die showdown for both clubs’ finals aspirations.

Make or break

The Warriors and their supporters are back in an all-too-familiar position after Friday’s 26-0 loss to Penrith, which – along with St George Illawarra’s subsequent troubles – took the gloss off the previous week’s euphoric defeat of the Dragons.

In their three losses to date the Warriors’ defence has hung in admirably, given how comprehensively outplayed they were across the park in each match. They would have capitulated to 40-plus losses to the Knights, Raiders and Panthers in previous campaigns. The Panthers’ first three tries essentially came from two dropped bombs and a charge-down.

But the Warriors’ attack? That’s a different story. They are averaging one try per game and have now been held scoreless twice in four 2020 outings. Among just four ‘meat pies’ this year, one was a penalty try and another came from a fumbled kick. There’s zero imagination, variation or intent to try something different.

Whether that’s the fault of a stale game-plan or the fact the Warriors simply don’t have the players to chase points remains up for debate. Probably a generous helping of both factors.

This Friday’s clash with a so far underwhelming and inconsistent North Queensland side is winnable. And the Warriors must get the two points to keep the dream of an unlikely finals drive afloat. Their early-season draw hasn’t exactly been the hardest – a 3-2 record after five rounds would have been more than realistic for a team that has designs on a Top 8 spot.

Sitting 1-4 at the end of Round 5 would pretty much be curtains for the Warriors’ playoff hopes in a shortened 20-game season and a stack of heavyweight assignments to come.

Pick and stick

The demoralising loss to Penrith had Warriors supporters howling for changes – but they all knew deep down they were highly unlikely to come. So it proved with Stephen Kearney making just one alteration to his 17 to take on the Cowboys.

Lachlan Burr – missing from the two matches since the restart due to the head knock – has been restored to the front-row, where he produced a modest return in Rounds 1 and 2. The big surprise, however, is that perpetual coach’s pet Isaiah Papali’i is the player to miss out, relegated to the extended bench in jersey 21.

The only time in the Warriors’ past 41 games Papali’i was absent was in Round 1 last year, when he was stood down for a week after being caught drink driving.

Burr’s return sees Adam Blair, outstanding at prop a fortnight ago in the win over St George Illawarra, move to lock. How that reshuffle will work given named second-rower Tohu Harris has been playing as middle forward for the past two games – and has been the Warriors’ best on each occasion – with Papali’i on the edge remains to be seen.

Peta Hiku, who missed the Panthers loss with a rib injury, and Agnatius Paasi, who sat out Round 4 through suspension, have both been named in the four-man reserves contingent and are a chance of coming in late – most likely at the expense of Hayze Perham and Jack Murchie.

The three-quarter line is sweating on the return of Hiku, Ken Maumalo and David Fusitu’a, but the area that clearly needs addressing is the hooker and halves scenario.

It ain’t easy being Green

Blake Green absolutely copped it on social media after the Panthers encounter – and it was hard to argue with the vast majority of the assessments. Aside from a duffed kick that gifted Matt Burton a try, the veteran could not spark anything on attack or put any pressure on Penrith with his boot.

But I feel sorry for Green. He’s been forced into a role that is not a natural fit for him and is exposing his limitations.

A wily, heady footballer, Green thrives as a secondary playmaker and kicker – he was highly valued during stints alongside Cooper Cronk, Daly Cherry-Evans and Shaun Johnson. But his lack of pace and glaring inability to kick with any sort of distance are unacceptable deficiencies for a team’s dominant half.

The blame either lies with Kodi Nikorima’s reluctance to get more involved and shoulder some of the ball-playing and kicking load, or Kearney’s instructions to Nikorima to stay out of the way. There’s simply no rational explanation for the lack of support he is providing the battling Green.

Then there’s Wayde Egan, who is averaging 14 run metres per game and providing little else than a truckload of tackles. Nikorima’s speed off the mark is custom-made for the new six-again rules at dummy-half.

Meanwhile, Chanel Harris-Tavita – who has proven his willingness to seize the initiative in just 11 NRL starts to date (though his efforts in Round 1 and 2 were poor) – is collecting splinters on the extended bench and getting no lower-grade opportunities to prove himself.

A CHT-Green halves combo – preferably with the youngster in the No.7 – and Kodi at hooker has to be the way forward.

Fresh faces for desperate Cowboys

His counterpart may be painfully reticent to take a hatchet to his team sheet, but Cowboys coach Paul Green had no issue swinging the axe after his charges’ sloppy loss to Cronulla in Round 4.

Premiership-winning hooker Jake Granville has been demoted in favour of young off-season recruit Reece Robson, while experienced utility-back Ben Hampton has lost his wing spot to NRL Nines sensation Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow.

Only 18, Tabuai-Fidow could be the fastest player in the NRL. He is set to prove a handful for opposite Patrick Herbert, but the debutant will (or should) be strenuously tested out on defence by the Warriors.

This is a crunch game for the 2-2 Cowboys. They’ve put away lightweights Canterbury and Gold Coast without too much trouble, but bookended those consecutive wins with home losses to Brisbane and Cronulla – neither of which have proved to be particularly strong so far in 2020. Michael Morgan’s ongoing absence is hurting the team, with precocious tyros Jake Clifford (who the Warriors should definitely be enquring about) and Scott Drinkwater showing flashes of class but lacking 80-minute game-management.

With an eye-watering run starting in Round 6 against the Tigers, Knights, Eels, Roosters, Panthers, Sea Eagles and Raiders, the Cowboys will be viewing this road trip with the same must-win mentality as the Warriors.

Sweating on JT

The winning and losing of this game could hinge on Jason Taumalolo’s availability. The Dally M Medal leader ran for over 600 metres combined in the Cowboys’ wins over the Bulldogs and Titans, but they looked a different team with him on the sidelines for the Sharks loss.

The Tongan wrecking ball has been named on the extended bench and is a chance of being a late inclusion.

The Warriors forwards fought valiantly but were perpetually on the back foot against a rampant Panthers pack. Blair, Harris, Taunoa-Brown and co are a chance of handling McLean, McGuire and Molo, particularly as John Asiata is a fresh addition to the casualty ward…but Taumalolo’s return could shatter the Warriors’ resolve.

Treacherous border crossings

Under normal circumstances, North Queensland travels more than any NRL club aside from the Warriors. And while no one is questioning the Warriors have taken on the most strenuous load in this crazy 2020 season, the task of flying in and out on game-day for away fixtures theoretically takes the biggest toll on the Cowboys.

The Cowboys’ record in the southern states is not good, winning just five of their last 17 in NSW, ACT and Victoria. A scrappy Round 2 win over Canterbury at an empty ANZ Stadium – their only game away from Townsville so far in 2020 – didn’t exactly suggest a turnaround to their road woes.

But the Cowboys can take some confidence from a 3-4-1 record in Gosford – including a shock 15-12 upset of Sydney Roosters with Central Coast Stadium’s palm trees as a backdrop in Round 17 last season.

The Warriors have now won three of their four games in Gosford, the club’s temporary home.

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