Cowboys searching for attacking spark
NORTH Queensland's stuttering attack is desperately searching for a spark, with statistics proving how difficult scoring has been for the Cowboys this year even with Johnathan Thurston steering the ship.
The Cowboys face the prospect of playing ladder leader St George Illawarra at Wollongong on Saturday night without three members of their first-choice spine in an early season injury crisis that threatens to halt their momentum.
They remain fifth with a 4-2 record after Saturday's shock 26-16 home loss to Wests Tigers, but wins are at a premium before the taxing Origin period.
Halfback Thurston joined hooker Jake Granville (leg) and fullback Lachlan Coote (calf) on the injury list when he was carried off with a calf issue late in the Tigers match.
He is expected to miss a few weeks, meaning the Cowboys backline faces another major reshuffle for the Dragons game.
North Queensland's defence, particularly through the middle, has been the major issue all year, but their attack hasn't been much better.
The continual chopping and changing of personnel hasn't helped North Queensland's cause.
According to Fox Sports Stats, the Cowboys have been tackled in their opposition 20m zone 215 times, equal top in the league with Penrith, but they've struggled to turn it into points.
They have scored 17 of their 19 tries this year in the opposition 20m at a strike rate of one every 12.6 tackles, but that is only the 10th best in the NRL.
"There was a couple of times where we did look okay but it's not flowing for us, it's a bit clunky and off the mark," five-eighth Michael Morgan said.
"Whether it's a pass off the mark which stops the whole play or a guy out of position, we've got to clear a few things up and keep working on them.
"We're four and two but it doesn't feel like that within the group, we know we haven't played our best footy."
The Cowboys were tackled 44 times in the opposition 20m compared to just 14 for the Tigers, but the visitors showed defensive desperation after a tough week.
North Queensland are also missing key finishers Antonio Winterstein (arm) and Origin centre Justin O'Neill (hamstring).
Back-rower Gavin Cooper said being unable to field a consistent team was "part of it", but they're not using it as an excuse.
"They defended well, they got off their line and shut us down," Cooper said.
"They did really well to get numbers in tackles and forced some errors on their try line. We had plenty of chances to not only get in front, but get away with the game.
"We still would have come off with our heads down even if Gids (Gideon Gela-Mosby) had scored that try (where he dropped a kick) at the end, because it wasn't a great effort across the board, myself included."
Teams generally try and grind out wins when most of their creativity is sidelined, but the Cowboys forwards have relied heavily on Jason Taumalolo and Coen Hess in the absence of leader Matt Scott.
The Dragons pack has been the focal point of their resurgence, in particular up front where Paul Vaughan, Russell Packer and Jack De Belin have been dominant.
They will fancy their chances of exposing the Cowboys' middle third.
"We spoke all week of what was going to happen and they (Tigers) didn't trick their way around us, they blew straight up the middle," Cooper said.
"Not just the middle, both edges had their chances to shut plays down.
"I'd like to say it's not us, but it's been us the last couple of weeks. We've got a lot of work to do."