Kevin Naiqama believes the Wests Tigers from the first half of the season would have stood no chance against the North Queensland Cowboys this weekend.
The Tigers dropped six games in a row – culminating in a 60-6 hiding at the hands of the Raiders – in what was a horror start to their 2016 campaign.
But a mid-season revival has seen the Tigers shoot up the ladder to sit outside the top eight on points differential alone with five rounds remaining.
With back-to-back wins against sides currently sitting below them on the ladder, this weekend’s replay of the 2005 Grand Final will give a fair indication on just how far the Tigers have come since the start of the season.
“Probably in the middle of the year when we went through that patch where we were really struggling, no,” Naiqama admitted when asked whether he thought his side could beat the Cowboys.
"But over the last couple of weeks – or two months or so – I’d say yes.
"There’s definitely a lot of confidence around the joint. Even when we were losing there was always something we were learning and we were building in our performances.
“With the football we’ve played the last two months, I definitely reckon we can get the job done this weekend.”
The Tigers will have the perfect opportunity to test just how far they’ve come when they face the defending premiers on Sunday afternoon.
Instead of fearing the Cowboys, Naiqama said the Tigers would embrace the challenge of taking on the best the NRL has to offer.
“After the bye, every game for us is a semi-final, so our semi-finals started two weeks ago, and that’s how we’re going to play this week as well. It’s going to be a tough game but the boys are looking forward to the challenge,” he said.
"This is why you play the game. You want to test yourself against the best sides, and there’s no one better than the Cowboys.
“They won it last year and they’re obviously up there in the top four for a reason. It’s a good thing for me and for the team to see where we’re at.”
Teammate Tim Grant agreed it didn’t matter who they were paying this weekend; every game for the Tigers from now on was a must-win.
“Anyone in the NRL is a hard game at this time of the year. You win a game and it’s two points, and if you lose one you drop four,” Grant said.
"I’m sure that it will be a step up, but in saying that, I think when you’re playing against the best, you bring out the best in yourself. We’re up for the challenge.
“There’s a really good feeling at the club at the moment and we’re excited to get out there and play.”
The Cowboys have only won one match at Leichhardt Oval, and that was 16 years ago, and their chances this time around could hinge on whether champion halfback Johnathan Thurston returns from the hamstring injury that kept him out of last week’s loss to the Storm.
Tigers dummy-half Dene Halatau believes the reigning Dally M Player of the Year will take the field on Sunday afternoon, but doesn’t think the Cowboys will be less of a challenge if Thurston should succumb to the injury.
“I’d say that they’ll give him every chance to play. It’s a long turnaround for them, as it is for us, and I heard that he was close to playing last weekend,” Halatau said.
"They obviously didn’t want to risk it, but we’ll prepare as if he is going to play. In saying that, they did a good job without him on the weekend and we don’t expect them to be any less competitive.
"We’re playing at Leichhardt Oval on a Sunday afternoon which is one of my favourite places to play.
“Hopefully we get a good turnout from or fans and members and hopefully we can put in a good performance where we show that we can compete with the top teams.”