The last few weeks of finals football are always a bit of a wild card, but Round 23 has proven more exhilarating than most, with the Bulldogs barely bringing home a win over the Sea Eagles with two tries from Josh Reynolds during golden point, the Rabbitohs suddenly and fiercely discovering their form with a 41-22 victory over the Warriors and a near-perfect first half of football, the St. George-Illawarra cellar dwellers somehow managing to beat the Sharks on the back of a historical Cronulla winning streak and Jarryd Hayne managing to kick the field goal that clinched the Gold Coast Titans’ agonising win over the Wests Tigers at Campbelltown on Saturday afternoon.
Still, no upset has been quite as dramatic as the Roosters’ win over the Cowboys at Allianz yesterday, in what may amount to the most emphatic reversal of form over the entire 2016 season. By the beginning of Round 23, the Chooks had only won four games all year, while the Cows had made a more or less consistent argument for their contention for back-to-back season premiers, with the exception of a few hiccups here and there. With Sydney City managing an impressive 22-10 victory however – a lead made all the more remarkable for the fact of three disallowed tries – pundits have to ask whether last week’s shock loss to the Tigers was really a hiccup for North Queensland or an indication that things are seriously sticky up in Townsville on the eve of finals footy.
In my review of last week’s match against the Tigers, I noted how strange it was to see Johnathan Thurston agitated, and while there may have been nothing in his performance this week to rival his bizarre kicking game at Leichhardt Oval, there was still a sense that the Cowboy’s number one playmaker was not firing at full capacity. In his work with the boot and his speed in defence it seems as if J.T. is less incapacitated by his hamstring injury than I would have expected by this point, but he doesn’t seem to have got back into the game either, with the Roosters managing to target him at just the right moments.
In particular, the Chooks were brilliant at keeping Thurston out of second phase play, as well as blocking and tackling him so as to prevent him capitalising off his own boot when things got tricky close to their line. By the same token, the Cows didn’t seem to be able to organize things around their star player either, with Thurston turning to his right a couple of times to realise that nobody was there to shoulder the Steeden or to continue the line of attack as gracefully as might have been hoped. Whether because J.T. himself isn’t finding the right spot at the right time or because the team itself hasn’t acclimatised to his headspace over the last couple of weeks, he’s out of sync with the rest of the squad.
Seeing a team out of touch with their number one playmaker is always a bit odd – think of the way Tyson Frizell can sometimes just seem to float, unutilised, in the middle of the Dragons pack – but it’s especially strange for the Cowboys, who for my money have been the tightest, most consistent and most professional outfit in the NRL over the last eighteen months. It’s no coincidence that North Queensland fielded the exact same team that won the Grand Final when they showed up for the World Club Challenge earlier in the year – a first for the Challenge – nor that they rocked up against the Broncos with their Grand Final seventeen intact when it came to their first Grand Final replay of 2016.
Nor is it a coincidence that, for the first half of this season, it was almost impossible to tell who were the highlights in the Cowboys side, with every player seeming to have his moment in the spotlight and Thurston slotting so seamlessly into the team’s unifying vision that you could almost forget that we were dealing with the world’s greatest half. In fact, J.T.’s greatest talent is arguably his ability to shed his celebrity status and subsume himself into the team, so seeing him stick out like a sore thumb is a bit of a painful experience, even if you’re not a North Queensland supporter, and must be doing Neil Henry’s head in as he prepares the team for their home match against the Warriors at Townsville next weekend.
Still, you can’t blame it all on an unfocused Cowboys side. For the first time this season, it felt as if we really saw the Roosters playing at full capacity. While there have been big questions asked about why the Tricolors have been playing so abysmally in 2016, the simplest explanation is that they have happened to be without most of their key players for every game, functioning more like a reserve squad peppered with young guns and up-and-comers like Latrell Mitchell rather than a first-grade team of storied veterans.
All that changed yesterday afternoon, with Mitchell Pearce, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Boyd Cordner all finally synergising together in what often felt like the first real Roosters performance of thw 2016 season. It was no surprise, then, that the Fox Sports team asked most of the key Chooks playmakers how they felt about the season that could have been, since there was a peculiar melancholy in seeing the Roosters put in what amounted to a stunning debut without a hope of making the final eight. Sure, it bodes well for their performance next year, but it was hard not to wish that the team had managed to demonstrate this kind of form earlier in the season, if only because it would have made the rest of the competition that much more dynamic.
Still, adversity breed resilience, and what emerged from the interviews with Cordner and Pearce was a new kind of Roosters determination and spirit, forged from their newfound synergy and reevaluation of what the team means in their lives. All teams that are on the rise have a moment of maturation and reflection, and in many ways it felt as if the Chooks were at that moment during last night’s game – a transitional point personified by Pearce, who seems to have brought a new kind of energy, intensity and conviction to his football persona, both on and off the field.
In the Hayne era, it’s hard to really trust in the sincerity of football celebrities, especially when they profess to a change of heart, and especially when they have the rap sheet of a Mitchell Pearce. Still, the fact that Pearce had reached his final chance with the NRL seems to have provided him with a new clarity, and the halfback I saw interviewed yesterday afternoon seemed to realise as much, presenting himself with a newfound sense of maturity, dignity and purpose that seemed to express contrition at every moment for his behaviour earlier in the year while also promising to make it up for the club with the kind of vision and leadership he showed over the course of a cracking eighty minutes.
Perhaps the greatest indication of that was Johnathan Thurston’s conversation with Pearce following the game. Thurston has one of the most expressive faces in the NRL – there’s a reason why his laugh has become so iconic, as well as why he’s so magnetic to watch as he lines up a conversion – and yet he’s also one of the most good-natured players. As a result, when he’s peeved or angry – such as during his sledges with Pearce during Origin, or his sit-down with Paul Gallen on The Footy Show – his emotions are quite naked and his face is quite galvanising and suspenseful to watch.
Last night, some of that discomfort was still there as he shook hands with Pearce after the game and stopped to have a conversation with him. Not only would the memories of their Origin clashes still be pretty raw, but it was a particularly bitter defeat for the Cowboys and an especially forgettable night for Thurston himself. Nevertheless, the fact that he stopped to talk to Pearce says wonders about his respect for the man – there’s really no better indication that the Roosters had won the game with dignity, and that Pearce has recommenced his move towards NRL greatness in the best possible way than that already iconic shot of his conversation with J.T. What they said to each other we’ll probably never know, but in many ways it felt like a passing on of the baton and a recognition that Pearce is starting to acquire what it takes to be a leader in the game, even if he’s made some pretty foolish decisions along the way.
And virtually every player I saw interviewed after the game credited Pearce in some way, paying tribute to his ability to take risks and to galvanise the team into action with big plays. It didn’t hurt, either, that the elusive Latrell Mitchell-Blake Ferguson combination really seemed to work for the first time this year as well, with Mitchell really finding his home on the wing and Fergo putting in perhaps his most convincing argument for Chooks fullback to date. Safe under the high ball and an utter monster whenever it seems like a goal-line dropout or forty-twenty opportunity is on the horizon, his notoriously mercurial and inconsistent presence seemed to settle into the kind of stability needed of a no. 1 with the return of the team’s veteran synergy, and it was great to see him playing with such passion.
Of course, it’s only been injury that’s forced Mitchell to the wing, but I also found myself wondering whether this might be the best place for him to refine his familiarity with the back row before taking over the no. 1 position from Fergo next year, or the year after. Along with Sean Kenny-Dowall, it’s quickly becoming one of the best back lineups in the game, and SKD also had a cracker of a night, bringing in the deftest try of the match at the 28th minute. Combined with powerhouse performances from the forwards – Dylan Napa and Sio Siua Taukeiaho in particular – it was a game the Roosters utterly deserved to win, and fantastic to see that they managed to bring it home.
All of which begs the question of where to now for the Cowboys and the Tricolors? For my money, next weekend will be a make or break match for North Queensland. Anyone with a passing knowledge of this season would assume that the Cows would run rings around the Warriors at 1300SMILES, but that will just make their diagnosis all the more definitive if they don’t manage to bring home a victory. As far as the Chooks are concerned, it’s a matter of playing for pride rather than points, but the team was nothing if not proud yesterday afternoon – and it was the best kind of pride, tinged with a well-earned sense of maturity and growth.
If they treat the next couple of weeks as pre-training for 2017, then, they’ll be well placed for a brilliant season next round, and I for one can’t wait to see them bring their best against the Dragons, Sharks and Broncos. After all, one of the pleasures of pre-finals footy is seeing how the teams that don’t stand a chance at the eight manage to consolidate their season with pride and purpose while throwing a spanner in the works for the teams that are aiming at those last few weeks. It’s my bet that the Chooks may throw a few spanners before the rest of the year is out, and I can’t wait to see what they manage to do with all their big players back on board.