All week Steve Price, the St George Illawarra coach, had drummed into Matt Prior his prime responsibility: stop Johnathan Thurston at all costs. Race up off the defensive line and shut him down, bump him if you get the chance and do your best to unsettle him. Legally, of course.

In the end it went awfully pear-shaped, with the forward sent off for an ugly elbow that left the North Queensland halfback unconscious and unable to return to Dairy Farmers Stadium last Friday night. To make matters worse, the Cowboys went on to win comfortably.

Prior was last night suspended for five matches by a three-man judiciary panel at Rugby League Central, a result that at first glance may seem light.

The judiciary counsel, Peter Kite, pushed for a penalty of between 500 and 700 demerit points: between five and seven matches. The result offered by panel members Mal Cochrane, Sean Garlick and Bob Lindner was on the bottom end of that scale - 550 points or five matches - but taking into account the contrition the 24-year-old Dragon had shown since the incident and his clean record it could be justified as a fair outcome.

''I think that's about right,'' Prior said. ''It was unintentional but in saying that I still hit him high. I'm regretting it now but I'm just glad he's all right. I'm looking forward to getting on with my life and getting on with my football.''

How the Cowboys, Thurston and coach Neil Henry view the severity of the ban will probably be seen today.

The fact that Thurston, approaching a bid for a seventh straight State of Origin title with Queensland, did not appear to be seriously injured certainly helped Prior's cause in that respect.

Having been referred directly to the tribunal on a striking charge by the match review committee, he entered an early guilty plea but argued last night that while he made contact with Thurston's head with his forearm and elbow in the 54th minute of the game, it was unintentional. ''My role during the week was to pressure Thurston. Just getting up hard, giving him a little bump to upset his rhythm. I was instructed to get up as hard as I can,'' Prior said.

Prior will be next available for the Dragons' round 16 match against the Gold Coast Titans in Wollongong.

Meanwhile, Cowboys' James Segeyaro failed to have a grade-two high tackle charge downgraded and will miss one match.