Friday night’s match in Townsville was a point of pride for both sides, with the Cowboys anxious to prove that they could steel themselves for finals footy in the absence of Johnathan Thurston, and the Broncos just as keen to compensate for their devastating loss to the Eels at Suncorp last week – a loss that Ben Hunt described as the worst he’d ever experienced at the Brisbane home ground.
Six minutes in, and the Cowboys were showing great energy, with a lifting tackle from Tautau Moga granting North Queensland some early field position early, especially once Morgan managed to get out to the right wing by the third tackle. With Kyle Feldt on his outside and the Broncos on the verge of pushing them both into touch, Morgo threw the ball to where his winger would have been, without so many Broncos in the way.
Miraculously, Feldt managed to wait a beat and then dash back into touch, ducking out of a tackle from Sam Thaiday to regain possession and slam the Steeden to ground as Corey Oates ran in to clean up. As luck would have it, Feldt hadn’t quite managed to make it over the line, but the dexterity of his interplay with Morgan seemed to signal that the Cows could triumph over the odds and take advantage of the home ground momentum.
Nevertheless, it was Matt Gillett who crashed over six minutes later for the first points of the game, thanks to a rare handling error from the Cowboys immediately after they’d received a penalty, with Jake Granville cursing himself for knocking on during the first tackle. That momentary dishevelment seemed to empower Brisbane, who consolidated all their pressure on the following set. Darting up the middle of the field, Anthony Milford put in a dazzling display with both boot and hands, managing to pull of a short kick despite a punishing tackle from Jason Taumalolo, and then regather the ball, twist around and offload to James Roberts in the midst of a follow-up tackle from Te Maire Martin.
From there, Jimmy the Jet offloaded in turn to Gillett, eluding Granville in the process, as the North Queensland rake dashed in to try and make up for his uncharacteristic clumsiness at the other hand of the field. It was too late, though, with Gillett planting the ball right on the sideline with the calmness and confidence that comes from knowing that you’re building points on the back of a terrific set up and a serenely accomplished piece of play.
Six minutes later Roberts put down the second Broncos try, although it belonged equally to Kodi Nikorima, who preceded it with a line break that tempted Javid Bowen to come in too soon, leaving the Brisbane halfback with room to squeeze through and burn ahead of the Cowboys’ defensive pack. With open space on either side, it would have been natural for him to kick out to Jordan Kahu on the wing, but instead Nikorima opted for a tightly angled vector back towards the inside of the field, as Roberts put in one of his fastest runs of the year to almost overtake the Steeden before flinging it to earth just short of the dead ball line.
Just as Roberts had taken inspiration from the part he played in Gillett’s opening try, so Kahu made up for his decoy role in Roberts’ try by going over himself a mere six minutes later. If Roberts’ four points had seemed effortless, then Kahu’s felt inevitable – not only did he outdo Antonio Winterstein under the high ball, but he managed to retain possession through the subsequent tackle, clutching the Steeden tight against his chest until he’d managed to extricate his torso from the North Queensland winger’s grasp.
Sure, Winterstein may have still had Kahu by the legs, but that just allowed the Brisbane winger to showcase his incredible strength in lunging forward to ground the ball without knocking it on in the process either. While Bowen may have arrived on the scene almost immediately, the Bunker replay showed that he was still just a split-second too late, as Kahu compressed Nikorima and Roberts’ shared intensity into one short, sharp movement.
By this stage, it was clear that North Queensland had to score just to remain in the competition, so 1300SMILES breathed a collective set of relief when Gavin Cooper put down points half an hour in, culminating a renewed surge of momentum for the Cowboys that had included the best run of the night from Taumalolo. More specifically, North Queensland had to find some way to rival Roberts and Kahu’s incredible displays of brute strength, and so a short sharp-run by a second rower was just the trick, especially when followed by such a plosive twist-and-spin.
Those four points gave the Cows a little more confidence in the build up to the final siren, and galvanised them to tighten their goal line defence in the face of a renewed onslaught from the visitors. Three minutes before half time, the Broncos got a repeat set on the last tackle after Winterstein obstructed Kahu out on the wing, despite the fact that there was no real chance of him ever laying a hand to the ball.
From there, Brisbane also accrued a goal line dropout, and looked set to score, only for Bowen to clean up their ball for the second time in the game and Darius Boyd to go to ground with a hamstring strain just as he’d regained possession for the Broncos on the siren. Combined with the Cowboys’ previous try, their goal line defence across these precious minutes was tantamount to a shift in momentum – or at least unsettled the supremacy that the Broncos had assumed over the majority of the game thus far.
For all the rapid-fire string of of tries that Brisbane put down in the first stanza, there would be only two more scored over the course of the game. The first came from Adam Blair, twenty-two minutes into the second half, and represented the big prop’s first four points in fifty-six games. Given that there had been nothing scored since the break, and that Brisbane had enjoyed possession for about ten minutes, this was a massive and momentous four points, especially since it started, once again, with a ball handling error from Granville.
Seizing his opportunity, a deft inside pass from Benji Marshall to Nikorima set the Broncos up for a goal line dropout, with Alex Glenn putting in a gymnastic effort to stay in the field of play after a combined drag from Michael Morgan, Kane Linnett and Ethan Lowe on the first tackle of the subsequent set. Once again, the Broncos got a goal line dropout, this time off the back of a deft grubber from Feldt, while three tackles later Martin put a hand to the ball, gifting the visitors another set of six and yet another bout of field position.
So much possession had Brisbane now enjoyed that they had to go over to avoid momentum shifting back to the Cows. They were nothing less than elated, then, when Blair twisted-and-spun over the line a tackle later, as Granville bookended this entire period of Brisbane field position with a late tackle that the Brisbane prop didn’t even bother to step out of before celebrating with his team mates. As Kahu converted a couple of seconds later, it felt as if we’d just witnessed a series of unanswered tries, rather than a sustained prologue to a mere six points.
For that reason, it took the hosts a while to regroup, and while Feldt may have managed to put down four more points, he didn’t make it to the line until one minute out from the final siren. In the last ten minutes, North Queensland enjoyed an even more sustained period of possession than Brisbane ten minutes before, with the visitors giving away penalty after penalty, and the Cowboys forming and reforming their line, with each new set seeming as if it must result in them finally putting down points.
Yet that just allowed the Broncos to reclaim their panache in goal line defence after the shock of last week’s performance against the Eels, with Marshall finally managing to outplay Cooper and get the ball down the other end of the field. As fate would have it, however, North Queensland regrouped on the Broncos line with sixty seconds to go, as the Steeden moved through virtually every player’s hands before it ended in the most predictable way – a cut-out pass from Morgan to Feldt that saw the Cows reprise the 2015 grand final, but without the possibility of golden point to console them this time around.
Still, this was a big try in its own way, since it placed North Queensland on equal footing with the Sea Eagles, as Lowe tried to conjure up Thurston’s presence with a bending, looping kick from the sideline, but couldn’t quite strike the ball at the right angle to put the Cowboys ahead of Brookvale on the ladder. Before this point, I’d almost hoped that neither team would score again, since, in its scale and speed, the solitary Broncos try put down by Blair somehow deserved a stanza all to itself.
At the same time, however, Feldt’s try occurred so close to the end of the game that it barely felt like a part of the game, and more a part of the Cowboys’ mindset as they prepare for the possibility of finals footy. It’s going to be doubly interesting, then, to see how they translate Thursday’s performance into the next week, or couple of weeks, just as the Broncos are going to be anxious to maintain this version of themselves – rather than the version that succumbed to the Eels – as the finals season gets into gear.