The Wests Tigers will face Johnathan Thurston and the ultimate test of their progress under oft-criticised coach Jason Taylor at Leichhardt Oval on Sunday.
The four-time Dally M Medallist appears certain to take on the Tigers at their spiritual home after missing last week’s NRL loss to Melbourne with a hamstring injury.
Initially slated for two to three weeks on the sideline, Thurston took part in Friday’s captain’s run and was spotted on the plane to Sydney with the side on Saturday.
In an added boost for the Cowboys, Australian and NSW prop James Tamou’s partner gave birth to their third child early on Saturday, leaving him enough time to travel to Sydney to take his place.
The Cowboys are desperate to jump back into third spot and Thurston’s inclusion is a shot in the arm to their chances.
Without the champion No.7 the premiers win just 28.9 per cent of their games and score on average 6.8 less points, according to Fox Sports Stats.
Taylor said with or without Thurston, Paul Green’s side were a daunting prospect.
“The Cowboys are not a team that’s based around one player now,” Taylor said.
“We’ve spent this week looking at all their players from their hooker (Jake Granville) and their fullback (Lachlan Coote), in particular those guys are really hard to stop.
“There’s plenty of others there too.”
Sunday’s match represents crunch time for the Tigers – they are 10th but a loss could be a big blow to their premiership chances.
Wins over Parramatta, St George Illawarra and Penrith were seen as vindication for Taylor’s decision to drop NSW hooker Robbie Farah.
However they have yet to prove themselves against a side of the calibre of the Cowboys and will have to do so without injured No.7 Luke Brooks, who will be replaced by Jack Littlejohn.
“We’ve been fighting for each other and getting through tough periods in games and coming out the other side of it, hanging in when things are going against us,” Taylor said.
“There’s some great teamwork going on there and great support for each other, which is enormously exciting … Our performances defensively have been good in the last couple of games but it’s certainly going to get a test tomorrow.”
STATS THAT MATTER
* The Cowboys have a horrible record at Leichhardt Oval, winning just one of eight games there.
* They will be aiming to win three straight matches in a season for the first time since round seven, 2014 while the Cowboys will be looking to avoid back-to-back losses for the first time this year.
* The Cowboys have been able to hold their opponent scoreless on four occasions this season. Only two teams have ever been able to hold their opposition to nil on five or more occasions.