COWBOYS playmaker Te Maire Martin's hopes of taking on his former side Penrith tonight have been crushed by a knee injury, with Kyle Laybutt to take his place for the crucial NRL clash.
Laybutt wasn't named in the initial 21-man squad on Tuesday, but the Cowboys have been granted dispensation by the NRL to play the 21-year-old after Martin succumbed to a minor knee injury he suffered against Melbourne last week.
It's another blow to an already injury-plagued Cowboys outfit fighting to cement a place in the finals after back-to-back losses.
Cowboys coach Paul Green said he may decide to start utility Ben Hampton in the halves and put Laybutt on the bench, after he performed strongly when moved to hooker by Townsville Blackhawks last week.
Rookie back-rower Patrick Mago also travelled with the squad to Penrith yesterday amid conjecture he is a chance to make his NRL debut, with Sam Hoare the man most likely to make way should it eventuate.
Green said Martin only had a low-grade medial ligament strain and looked set to play Cronulla next week.
But given key men Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott, Gavin Cooper and Antonio Winterstein are all sidelined, it wasn't worth taking the gamble at Penrith.
"The fact he probably wouldn't have trained until this morning, I chose earlier in the week (to scratch him) rather than risk not having a good preparation. It will put him in good stead for next week," Green said.
"He did it reasonably early in that second half and finished the half, which was a really good sign.
"We don't want to roll the dice at this stage of the year with players like that."
Laybutt made his debut this year in round 15 against Melbourne, and also played in the home win over Penrith the following week before returning to Queensland Cup.
Green said his versatility worked in his favour when giving him the nod.
"He actually had a bit of time at hooker too last week so that adds another string to his bow," Green said.
"He's a good defender and has a great pass, he's got the attributes to make a good utility player.
"He played Penrith last time so he shouldn't be overawed. The fact he's got his debut out of the way is a good thing so you're not going through all those nerves.
"It'll be either one (Hampton or Laybutt in the halves), if one doesn't start the other will be on the bench.
"I've got full confidence in Kyle otherwise I wouldn't pick him. I think he did a good job for us when he played NRL."
Green said he expected Panthers skipper Matt Moylan to play after missing two weeks with a hamstring injury.
It adds to the challenge for the depleted Cowboys, who could finish the round as low as eighth if they fail to beat Penrith.