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Clifford back for injury-hit NRL Cowboys

North Queensland have been forced into a number of changes ahead of Saturday’s NRL derby with Brisbane as injuries continue to cripple the Cowboys.

Jake Clifford, who was dropped after round three, will return to the playmaking fold after Ben Hampton suffered a suspected torn pectoral muscle in Sunday’s 24-20 bruising loss to the Warriors.

The 23-year-old Clifford, who will depart the club for Newcastle at season’s end, has been given the halfback reins following some decent showings in the Intrust Super Cup.

While coach Todd Payten says the young playmaker was out of form before his demotion, it’s a good opportunity for Clifford to showcase his talent in a return to the NRL.

“(It’s) disappointing for Benny (Hampton). He’s played some really good footy recently and made a fist of that halfback spot,” he said.

“What it does for Jake is it gives him an opportunity.

“He’s experienced, he knows what’s expected so I’m excited for the kid.”

Centre Justin O’Neill will miss the game at Queensland Country Bank Stadium as he awaits scans on a knee injury sustained in last weekend’s loss.

O’Neill will be replaced by Javid Bowen who will be making an NRL comeback.

“He (Bowen) hasn’t played since 2019, he wasn’t offered a contract in 2020, he’s come back as a train-and-trial (player) ,” Payten said.

“He’s had a shoulder reconstruction in that time, and he’s played two games and deserves his spot.”

“(Javid’s) very skilful, he’s a big body, he’s strong and he’s a good kid who I think understands that this is his final opportunity.

“He’s going after it and this is why he’s here.”

Depth at the centre position is slowly dwindling for the Cowboys as young star Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow remains sidelined with an ankle injury.

The club also announced the departure of centre Esan Marsters on Tuesday, who will be joining Gold Coast, effective immediately.

Bur Payten is adamant it doesn’t change their plans for future recruitment.

“Not entirely, no,” Payten said.

“We have some other major pieces of the jigsaw to fall into place first before we get into that kind of position.

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