The Roosters have put in the comeback of their season to beat the Cowboys by a converted try despite heading into the sheds at halftime with their biggest deficit of 2017 so far. A stunning trio of tries in the second half combined with some enormous defensive moves turned what initially looked set to be a Cowboys comeback – North Queensland started shaky but gained momentum over the opening stanza – into one of the most rousing victories for the Tricolours all year.
Latrell Mitchell put down the first points of the night – and his tenth try of the season – in spectacular fashion two minutes in, thanks to a short ball from Luke Keary who sensed a bit of space opening up on the left wing and made the most of it. Taking possession of the Steeden, Mitchell sped up the sideline, fending off Kyle Feldt, skipping around a tackle from Justin O’Neill, and completely outrunning Lachlan Coote while remaining within a hair’s-breadth of the chalk. In slow motion it looked more like dance than football, as Mitchell curved around the entire North Queensland defence to ground the ball right behind the posts, setting himself up for an effortless conversion a minute later.
For a while, it looked as if the Roosters would be the next to score, as Shaun Fensom’s absence combined with Michael Morgan’s clear shoulder discomfort allowed the hosts to consolidate their possession and field position. What North Queensland needed was a good, strong set piece to consolidate their own focus, and that’s just what happened at the eighteenth minute, when Coote showed some good leadership and vision by running right up to the line and forcing Joseph Manu to come out of position, before sending a short ball over to Kane Linnett to pop through the brief gap he’d created.
It didn’t hurt, either, that Blake Ferguson slipped over in his efforts to get to the Cowboys centre, with Linnett slamming the ball over the line as if the Roosters’ left edge didn’t even exist. While this definitely brought North Queensland back into the game, Ethan Lowe didn’t manage to hook the Steeden at the right angle for the conversion, leaving the scoreline at 6-4 with twenty minutes until the siren.
Nevertheless, the Cowboys put down their second try ten minutes later, and with much the same assurance and precision. Once again, Coote was the try assister, collecting the Steeden from Morgan and sending out a looping harbour bridge pass over Justin O’Neill to reach Feldt on the chest. From there, the burly winger did what he does best, storming up the sideline to plant the ball in the right corner.
There’s something about the spectacle of Feldt scoring that always rouses the Cowboys’ spirits, partly because of his sheer dexterity and partly because of the way it recalls the 2015 Grand Final, and this was no exception, with Feldt clearly relishing his opportunity to make up for letting Mitchell through in the opening minutes of the game. Initially, it had looked as if North Queensland might be feeling Thurston’s absence more emphatically than they had over the last few weeks, but with Lowe managing to hook a difficult sideline conversion those concerns evaporated, with both of their tries testifying to the professionalism, calmness and quiet focus that can make them so damaging as a team.
The Cowboys came up with a third brilliant effort three minutes later, in what amounted to a more compressed and condensed set play. It started with a short ball from Jake Granville to Morgan right on the line, followed by Morgan flicking the ball onto Coen Hess so rapidly that he handed it more than passed it onto his big frontrower, with the momentum of Granville’s initial pass doing more than enough to send it through. Good thing that Morgan opted for such a split-second decision, too, since he was grounded with a brutal tackle a moment after, a spectacle that would have been fairly dispiriting had Hess not made the most of his opportunity to slam through four or five Roosters defenders and get the Steeden to ground beneath a mass of Tricolour jerseys.
The on field ruling was try, and the replay was unable to discern anything to disprove that amidst the maelstrom of Roosters descending on Hess, resulting in four more points for the Cowboys, and six once Lowe added the extras for a second time. These short-range efforts have become Hess’ signature much as freaky sideline runs have become Feldt’s, and in tandem they consolidated the sense that North Queensland were starting to play at their very best, fire on all fronts and use each player to their optimal strengths. It didn’t hurt, either, that Hess had tried and failed to cross over a couple of sets before, meaning that his four-pointer carried the catharsis of that earlier frustration much as Feldt’s had made up for his scrappy defence on Mitchell.
The Roosters headed into the sheds with their biggest halftime deficit in 2017 – 16-6 – and yet they started their comeback immediately in the first five minutes after the break. At first, it seemed as if the Cowboys were destined to put down more points, with Morgan finishing their first set with a stunning, floating bomb that Conor Watson was totally unable to contain, with the Steeden actually hitting him on the knee as he stretched out his hands for it, before skidding back down the field towards the North Queensland chasers.
In the kind of sudden let-off that can make or break a game, however, it turned out that the chasers had been offside, gifting the Roosters a penalty instead of forcing them to counter a repeat set of six. Wisely, Sydney City chose to take advantage of the shift in momentum to run at the line instead of taking the two, and a couple of minutes later Mitchell put in a try assist to rival his try in the opening minutes of the game, sending Daniel Tupou over in the left corner.
Once again, too, Feldt was the casualty, as Mitchell collected the Steeden and drew both O’Neill and Feldt in out of their lines before popping the ball over to Tupou to cross over unmarked. You could only imagine that Feldt had assumed that Mitchell was going to run at the line himself, and was determined not to let him get through a second time, but it was the wrong call – and the frustration on the North Queensland winger’s face was evident in the background as Mitchell tried to add the extras, but didn’t quite manage the sideline conversion, leaving the Chooks a converted try behind the visitors with thirty-five minutes to go on the clock.
Buoyed up by that sudden change in momentum, the Roosters looked like a new team, putting in a massive defensive effort over the next set, including a huge hit-up from Ferguson, to keep the Cowboys within the twenty until a somewhat desperate fifth-tackle kick from Morgan got them a momentary respite. It was momentary, however, since with Coote getting caught up in the tackle, on the fifth tackle, a couple of sets later, the Roosters once again got a penalty right on their line, and once again chose to run the ball instead of taking the two.
In a play that couldn’t have spoken more eloquently to their position in the game at this exact moment, Sio Siua Taukeiaho replicated Hess’ try and intensified it in the process, running at the line from over ten metres out and slamming through Hess himself first, before eluding Lowe and then a swathe of other Cowboys defenders to get the ball to ground, for the toughest try of the night so far and a try that gathered all the toughness of the Roosters’ last few minutes into one magnificent move. To make things even better, the camera was able to depict the ball getting to ground this time around as well, and with Taukeiaho taking over kicking duties from Mitchell to convert his own try the Roosters had come back to a 16-16 scoreline.
With that kind of surge, it wasn’t surprising that the Chooks put down another try in quick succession. This time Keary was the playmaker, coming right up against the Cowboys line and making as if to dummy to Mitchell Pearce, who was running up and around him, only to take a shot at the chalk himself, slipping out of a tackle from Lowe and an ankle tap from Coote to get the Steeden over the line.
To make things just that little more suspenseful, Taukeiaho failed to add the extras this time around, making it a four-point ball game and steeling the Cowboys to prevent the Chooks making any better on their newfound momentum, even if Sydney City seemed to be unassailable by this point in the night. With Feldt knocking on the high ball a couple of minutes later, things were starting to look desperate for North Queensland, who had started off the game really feeling Thurston’s absence, had come into their own, but who now seemed to be at sea without their skipper once again.
Thirteen minutes out from the end, the Roosters got another penalty, but this time they chose to take the two in order to put them a converted try ahead. Given that they only ended up winning by this converted try, that may have been the most sensible decision, but at the time it felt like the end to their incredible resurgence, since even if they hadn’t scored a four-pointer on this set, it was clear that the Cowboys forwards were on the verge of breaking-point and that, with just a bit more exhaustion, the Chooks might be able to clock up an even more impressive scoreline by the time the final siren rang out.
For a moment there, too, the Cows seemed to have glimpsed the try needed to bring them back into the game – and perhaps bring the game to golden point – with Feldt finally finding some open space at the seventieth minute mark and sending the Steeden across to O’Neill, only for Ferguson to wrap things up pretty nearly out on the edge. Similarly, the visitors built some pressure at the seventy-second minute, only for a Hail Mary pass from Morgan to go begging, bouncing between Feldt and Coote before Tupou scrambled in to clean it up and head back down the other end of the field. From there, all that Sydney City had to do was hold on, and hold on they did – a key moment in their consolidation for finals footy.