Saturday night’s game at ANZ wasn’t just another amazing win from North Queensland but a critical moment in the ongoing evolution of the Cowboys as they start to distantly glimpse how they might look without Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott in the long term. If last week’s win against the Sharks was surprising, then this week’s victory over the Eels was nothing short of miraculous, especially since Neil Henry had openly admitted that he didn’t believe that Cows had a chance, in what may be one of the best mind games played during finals footy this year.
Taken in combination, these two weeks of football have combined to create a new sense of endurance and longevity for North Queensland, and a renewed sense of what they can achieve even without their co-captains at the helm. At the same time, this will probably go down as the game in which Michael Morgan has really come of age as Johnathan Thurston’s replacement at halfback, just as last week’s match against Cronulla felt like the first time that Jason Taumalolo has reached the very apex and pinnacle of what he can achieve.
At this stage, then, North Queensland’s run to the finals seems so improbable that it might just continue – and it’s hard to imagine any NRL fan begrudging the Cowboys that kind of fairytale finish. After all, getting to the finals in the first place was conditional on the Bulldogs beating the Dragons – who would have ever expected that to occur? – which is perhaps why no other team has seemed to personify the wild cards and unexpected outcomes of finals football in 2017 like the Cows.
The North Queensland victory was all the more remarkable in that Parramatta owned the first half of the game, with Semi Radradra putting down arguably his best try of the season a mere seven minutes in. Outplaying Kyle Feldt under a high ball from Morgan, Semi sped down the field, eluded an ankle tap from Scott Bolton, and then scooted ahead of an attempted tackle from Morgan to ground the ball directly beneath the posts.
No player has made such a dramatic surge on the pointscoring ladder at the tail end of this season, and with his ninth try in just over three games Semi’s mad dash gave Parramatta an incredible boost in these opening minutes. It didn’t hurt, either, that it occurred just after the dispiriting spectacle of Daniel Alvaro being taken off for the second time in two weeks, nor that it had occurred at Feldt’s expense, as if the Eels were pre-empting the North Queensland winger’s talent for miracle moves from the very beginning of the game.
It didn’t take Feldt long to respond, though, as he slammed through Brad Takairangi on the next set for his freakiest try of the season. Tumbling over the sideline, he curved his hand around his back milliseconds before finding touch, in a move that was somehow contorted and graceful at the same time. It was the same corner he’d scored in two years ago against the Broncos, as he single-handedly stole the momentum back from Parramatta, especially once Ethan Lowe hooked the ball through the posts with Thurston-esque assurance.
It was clear that the Eels had to find a way to recapitulate the power of that opening dash, so you could almost feel the blue and gold supporters breathe a sigh of relief when Will Smith replicated Semi’s run on the other side of the field. It started with another kick from Morgan, although this time at close range, allowing the ball to bounce off Smith’s chest and sit up so conveniently for the Parramatta fullback to regather it that the referee asked the Bunker to make sure he hadn’t made a play at the ball after it left Morgan’s boot.
As Smith stormed down the field, Jake Granville attempted a tackle around the forty metre mark but didn’t quite make it. By the time Lowe had caught up from the other side of the park it was much too late, as Morgan’s last tackle option had once again provided the Eels with four points. Yet that’s not to say that Morgan’s kicks were mistimed or ineffective either – more that Parra had a pretty lucky run with where and how the Steeden landed, suffusing them with a confidence they perhaps hadn’t quite earned by this point in the game, even with a spectacular back end of the season behind them.
Five minutes after the break, John Asiata made another dent in the blue and gold armour, putting down points with what he later revealed to be a broken hand. This time, Morgan’s spiralling bomb came up with the goods, since while Smith may have appeared to clean it up after the bounce, Asiata put in the kick chase of the night to reach the Parramatta fullback just as he was claiming possession. From there, Asiata executed what was effectively a one-one-one strip to regain the Steeden as dexterously as if Morgan had kicked directly to him, slamming over the line to bring the scoreline to 10-10.
Given that both of the Parramatta tries had come off Morgan’s boot, it was an important momentum-shifter for the Cowboys to finally put down four points of their own off a fifth tackle kick. They built on their momentum, too, with Coen Hess putting down their third try seven minutes later, thanks to a deft pass from Te Maire Martin who deceived the Parra defensive line by running as if to kick, only to pass the ball across for the second successive try from a North Queensland forward.
It had been enough of a shock for the Eels to see North Queensland gain a two point lead, but to see them score another try right beneath the posts – and in such a deceptive manner – was too much to bear, and resulted in a back-and-forth between Hess and Cameron King that brought all the players over in a matter of seconds. While the Bunker may have replayed the try, it wasn’t really for the sake of determining whether Hess had grounded the ball, but whether any of the Eels players – Manu M’au and Kenny Edwards in particular – had committed any infractions, with the slow-motion footage just reiterating how debilitated Parra had been by these four crucial points.
If North Queensland had taken control of the narrative, they well and truly wrapped it up once Morgan crossed over five minutes out from the end – the perfect culmination to the game in which he finally filled Thurston’s giant boots. It came off the back of a series of unforced errors from the Eels and escalating field position for the Cowboys, with a rapid-play-the-ball from Granville finally finding Morgan on the chest ten metres out from the line.
In a game that had been so defined by his kicking prowess, Morgan chose this moment to showcase just why he’s renowned as a running half, dodging through the blue and gold defence to come to ground just short of the line. Keeping the Steeden tucked into his chest, he relied partly on the defensive pressure of the Eels – Smith was on his back almost immediately – to slam him and the ball into the in goal area, for the most triumphant moment in Cowboys history since they won the grand final in 2015.
It was disappointing for North Queensland, then, that Michael Jennings managed to sneak in six more points on the final siren, and yet you couldn’t really call it a consolation try – if anything, it reiterated how close the game had been and how much better the Eels had performed. By that point it had been a full fifty minutes since Smith and Radradra had marched down each side of the field, and the players seemed almost as distressed as the Sharks after their loss to the Cowboys last week.
Yet so unexpected and rousing was the North Queensland push that Jennings’ final points barely made a dent in their momentum. Whatever happens in the next couple of weeks, this will surely stand as a definitive moment in the mythology of the Cowboys, and with Matt Scott named on the extended bench it feels as if everything is falling into place for North Queensland.
Sure, it’s unlikely they’ll win against the Roosters, but it was even more unlikely that they would triumph over the Sharks and the Eels. Unlikeliness is what the Cowboys appear to be doing best, and I bet most NRL fans can’t help but back them over the next few weeks for that very reason, since they’re the genuine underdogs of finals footy this year.