North Queensland coach Paul Green has opted for experienced duo Ray Thompson and Ben Hannant as he recalibrates his depleted team for the NRL finals.
Without key men Michael Morgan (ankle) and James Tamou (neck), the Cowboys get an early look at a potential finals combatant when they take on Melbourne on Saturday.
Morgan is expected to be out for at least a month with ankle syndesmosis, while Tamou is a week-to-week proposition after suffering another neck injury.
“It’ll just be a matter of, similar to last year, just waiting until all the symptoms are gone and he gets full strength back in both his arms,” Green said.
Second-rower Gavin Cooper also makes an important return from an eye socket problem.
Meanwhile, the Sydney Roosters have turned to rising star Jackson Hastings to help keep them on track for what would be a third straight minor premiership.
The 19-year-old whizkid takes the reins from the hamstrung Mitchell Pearce, while Sam Moa comes back from a wrist issue to partner Dylan Napa in a front row now missing pack leader Jared Waerea-Hargreaves for the year due to an ACL tear.
Mitchell Aubusson stands in for the suspended Michael Jennings for Friday night’s match against the Sea Eagles, who have named Blake Leary to deputise for injured hooker Matt Ballin.
Prop Willie Mason is the other major in for Manly after completing his two-game shoulder charge ban.
Two more players back after suspension are South Sydney pair Luke Keary and Issac Luke, somewhat reducing the damage felt by Greg Inglis’ knee injury.
Alex Johnston will wear the No.1 jumper against Brisbane on Thursday night.
Elsewhere, veteran St George-Illawarra winger Jason Nightingale will make a timely return to the side for Sunday’s must-win NRL clash with Gold Coast.
The Dragons are one of the few teams to be bolstered by two key inclusions, with Nightingale returning after a three-week layoff with an ankle sprain, while Joel Thompson (hamstring) comes in for the suspended Jake Marketo.
The eighth-placed side need to win to ensure they stay ahead of ninth-placed Manly.
Parramatta’s Tim Mannah and Newcastle’s Beau Scott are also set to come back from minor knocks to strengthen their teams after respective wins last-start, while Gold Coast’s Daniel Mortimer pushes to pivot for Greg Bird, who is outed by a quad strain.