The Press

Warriors again under pressure

- MARVIN FRANCE

It’s crunch time for the Warriors.

While defeat against the Cowboys in Townsville tonight would not mathematic­ally eliminate them from the top eight equation, there has been little evidence throughout the season that they would be able to recover.

A third-straight loss would leave them with almost no room for error in the race to the finals, needing to win at least five of their last six games.

With matches remaining against the lowly placed Knights, Rabbitohs and Tigers, there is a chance to go on a run. However, with reigning premiers Cronulla coming to Mt Smart next week followed by the Raiders and Sea Eagles, they would still need to pick up a couple of big scalps.

Now is the time for the Warriors to stand up. They are in desperate need of a statement game; a performanc­e to prove to their long-suffering fans that they will not go down without a fight.

Unfortunat­ely, the odds are stacked against coach Stephen Kearney’s side this weekend, and that’s even after accounting for the absence of the Cowboys’ star half Johnathan Thurston.

The Warriors have always struggled in Townsville, winning just one of their last 11 games there. They too will be without their star playmaker following Shaun Johnson’s knee injury, replaced by regular reserve-grader Mason Lino.

Last week’s capitulati­on against the Panthers after Johnson was taken from the field does not bode well for their chances.

But with Kieran Foran, Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, Simon Mannering and Issac Luke to rally the troops there is still a strong belief within the squad that they can turn things around.

‘‘We haven’t wiped ourselves yet,’’ Luke said.

‘‘Every game does count. We should’ve taken that game on the weekend and we’re pretty disappoint­ed but we get the chance to play great this weekend and hopefully get the win.

‘‘Shaun has a big impact on us but we’ve got enough leaders in our team to help out Mase. I’m sure he doesn’t need it but within the group we’re pretty confident.’’

North Queensland have been coping just fine without their inspiratio­nal halfback, winning three-straight games since Thurston suffered a season-ending shoulder injury during Origin II.

Queensland utility Michael Morgan has taken control of the side and he’s had plenty of help from fullback Lachlan Coote and hooker Jake Granville.

After securing his services on a mid-season transfer from Penrith, the Cowboys have also had the luxury of calling on promising Kiwi five-eighth Te Maire Martin, who could have been suiting up for the Auckland club had negotiatio­ns not fallen over.

Instead, it is three-game rookie Lino who has been promoted for the first time since filling in for Johnson at the back-end of 2015.

While all the expectatio­n is on Foran to deliver, both his and Lino’s jobs will be made much easier if the forwards win the battle in the middle.

After showing signs of improvemen­t during the Origin period, Luke admitted the Warriors pack took a couple of steps back in the twin defeats to Manly and Penrith.

They played well in bursts against the Panthers but faded badly down the stretch as the visitors ran in three soft tries.

Up against explosive big men Jason Taumalolo and Coen Hess, it could be a long night for the visitors if they fail to slow down the ruck tonight.

‘‘We know as a forward pack we haven’t been there the last two games. We managed to start well but we died off,’’ Luke said. ‘‘It’s all about trying to roll them down the park and let [Foran and Lino] take over on the last plays.’’

 ?? PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES ?? Issac Luke says the Warriors have enough senior players to cope without injured star Shaun Johnson.
PHOTO: GETTY IMAGES Issac Luke says the Warriors have enough senior players to cope without injured star Shaun Johnson.

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