The Cowboys have put down their fourth consecutive win without Johnathan Thurston, and their most compelling argument yet for a finals berth without their leader on the field. All the key playmakers stepped up, with Justin O’Neill and Ethan Lowe both scoring for the first time this year, for a hard-won battle at 1300SMILES Stadium, culminating with a cathartic run down the length of the field by Javid Bowen for the final North Queensland try.
The Warriors were the first to put down points, on the back of a great pass from Kieran Foran to Roger Tuivasa-Sheck just as the North Queensland defence was converging around him, followed by a short ball from RTS to put Bunty Afoa into open space. It was the kind of make-or-break play that the New Zealand fullback can do so well, and he timed the pass perfectly for it to sail in front of Michael Morgan’s chest before reaching his second rower, who surged forward to plant the ball over the line. Full credit has to go to Foran, too, who enjoyed one of his strongest openings in Warriors colours so far, and had been instrumental in building pressure and establishing the goal-line dropout that led to the set in the first place.
The Cows responded ten minutes later with Justin O’Neill’s first try of the 2017 season, thanks to a kicking error from Mason Lino who booted the ball into touch and granted North Queensland a seven tackle set in the process – a disappointing moment for the stand-in halfback, who had already managed to garner two goal line dropouts in Shaun Johnson’s absence. From there, the Cowboys marched back down the field, barely looking back to register Shaun Fensom hitting the turf – and then being taken off – and converging on the Warriors’ line, where a perfect pair of passes contributed to place O’Neill over the chalk.
The first came from Morgan, who waited just long enough for New Zealand to drift in before sending the Steeden over to Lachlan Coote, who put in arguably an even more dexterous display of patience and timing, waiting until he had just got on the outside of Bodene Thompson before opting for a short ball to O’Neill, who read his plan perfectly and continued the play seamlessly. With Lowe adding the extras, the score was level at 6-6, and it was starting to feel a bit more like a regular North Queensland home fixture.
Both teams struggled to put down points as the half time siren approached, although North Queensland were much more consistent and disciplined than New Zealand, and often appeared to be simply waiting to capitalise upon an error from the visitors. Sure enough, they received their first goal line dropout after David Fusitua fumbled the ball in the in-goal area and Blake Ayshford only just managed to slam in and clean things up. Shortly after, Te Maire Martin ran a good five or six metres after contact in a Taumalolo-like move, part of the sheer determination emanating from the halves in Thurston’s absence.
While the Warriors may have somehow come up with the Steeden at the end of it, the Cowboys managed to regain the upper hand. Five minutes out from the siren, the Warriors conceded a penalty for a tackle on Javid Bowen. It was exactly the opportunity the Cowboys needed to consolidate their pressure, and at the end of the next set Jake Granville put in a spectacular grubber that barely moved forward at all, instead skidding along the try line, bouncing clean through Lino’s legs and then – fortuitously – avoiding Kane Linnett’s hands – and a potential knock-on – before sitting up to find Bowen in the chest, who from his position at the beginning of the play seemed about the last player likely to come up with the Steeden with so many big New Zealand bodies in the way.
It was a bit of an upset, then, when the Warriors managed to reverse the narrative at the last minute, taking advantage of a late North Queensland error to storm back down the other end of the field in a few tackles, where a perfect pass from Foran set up Simon Mannering to cross over right on the stroke of half time. Full credit has to go to the big lock himself too, not only for a spectacular right fend on Lowe, but for reading Foran’s intentions so seamlessly that the ball barely seemed to change hands on its way to the try line, so perfectly did the two players sync up.
With Issac Luke adding two more points, the Warriors were suddenly – and unexpectedly – back in the game, taking the edge off the last North Queensland try in the most emphatic and dramatic way possible and setting up what initially promised to be a terrific second half, despite the fact that these would turn out to be the last points they scored over the course of the game. To their credit, however, the Warriors managed to build some amazing momentum in the wake of halftime. Seven minutes in, Foran was poised to crash over, in what would have been the natural culmination of his form across the evening as a whole, only for Gavin Cooper to put in a terrific trysaving tackle, and knock the ball clean from his hands, in what was probably the critical turning-point for New Zealand.
Five minutes later the Cowboys received a penalty goal, and it felt as if they’d decisively taken control of the ground. A couple of sets later, Morgan poked his nose through the line, disheveling the New Zealand defence enough for Martin to surge through on the next tackle, with only RTS standing as last line of defence between the ex-Panther and another four points for North Queensland. Coasting on that momentum, Morgan’s fifth-tackle kick found a swathe of Cowboys jerseys waiting for it in the corner, with Solomone Kata making the most desperate move to collect the Steeden and make it back into the field of play.
It was all for nought, however, with Ethan Lowe following Justin O’Neill by putting down his own first points of the year, off the back of a piece of play that O’Neill started by passing to Lowe himself. From there, right on the line, Lowe got the ball across to Feldt, who realised there was nothing doing on the wing and ran diagonally back inside the field, repositioning himself so that Lowe was now behind him on the wing, a strategy that Lowe read perfectly.
By the time that Feldt flicked the ball back to him, Lowe was in place to surge up the right side, popping the ball down in the corner moments before Ken Maumalo smashed him into touch. It was a putdown that had more than a touch of Feldt’s dexterity about it, and part of the elegance of the try was the generosity with which the star winger set up his centre for the kind of try that he’d more typically and comfortably ground himself, in the single best bit of communication across the game so far.
Still, as the final siren approached, and the Warriors glimpsed their season slipping away from them, they got more and more desperate, and with only four points between the two teams it suddenly felt as if this might be New Zealand’s night. As it turned out, another error from Foran turned out to be the harbinger of further points for the Cowboys – a 40/20 attempt at the 74th minute that landed half a metre on the wrong side of the turf – but it took longer for North Queensland to capitalise upon Foran’s inconsistency.
A minute later, Coote aimed for a field goal, but it bounced off the uprights and straight into the in-goal area in such a surprising way that the Cows weren’t able to make the most of it, allowing RTS to swoop in and clean it up, with the Warriors gaining a penalty in the process after several of the North Queensland chasers were deemed offside. A couple of tackles later, New Zealand received another penalty, and from here they put in possibly their most uncompromising set of the night, as Foran almost broke through the line, Afoa put in a sledgehammer run right on the goal line (and was barely held back by a pack of Cowboys defenders), and Kata put his head down and tried to burrow through the North Queensland defence out of dummy half on the final tackle.
After somehow managing to get the ball back, Bowen glimpsed some open space as the set proceeded, only to boot the Steeden over the dead ball line, granting the Warriors a seven tackle set with less than two minutes on the clock. Still, he made up for it under the New Zealand high ball at the end of that set, intercepting a tap from Fusitua to Ayshford and then running the full length of the field for what has to be one of the most cathartic and emotional wins of the year – and the most cathartic for Cowboys fans so far.
Having now won four consecutive games without Thurston, this final display of brilliance was just what North Queensland needed to convince themselves that finals footy is in their future, with 1300SMILES taking on a Thurston-like electricity as Bowen sped down the field, and the Cowboys started to glimpse just how far they might venture into the finals season if they continue this level of form and determination.