There won’t be a better game of football in 2017 than the Cowboys’ shock win over the Roosters – that is, unless North Queensland manage to bring home a win over the Storm in the grand final. Climate-wise, Saturday night felt like a home game for the Cows, with one of the warmest days since summer predicted to get even warmer as the night proceeded, and the visitors settling in seamlessly to the tropical atmosphere.
That said, one of the most disappointing sequences for the Cowboys came at the beginng of the game, after Michael Morgan managed a terrific 40/20 five minutes in. The team glimpsed some great momentum and field position on the subsequent set, only for Te Maire Martin to cough up a fifth-tackle kick from Morgan that had been played at by Blake Ferguson, and would have resulted in six again for North Queensland – and quite possibly a try – if the young five-eighth had managed to play his cards right and retain possession.
While it had been Martin’s error, you could tell that the Roosters were more relieved for having contained the outcome of Morgan’s kicking game – a worrying sign for the Cowboys given how critical Morgan had been to the win over the Eels the week before. Yet with Ferguson coughing up the ball a couple of sets later, some kind of balance seemed to have been restored, in a kind of prologue to Fergo’s rocks and diamonds performance in the second half, when he scored and then conceded a try in rapid-fire succession.
Things swung back even further in the Cowboys’ direction when Martin made up for his blunder by putting down their first try of the night twenty-four minutes in. For the first part of the game, the play had been more rapid and continuous than at any other point during this finals season, often recalling the opening half of Origin 1 in the steady march from end to end of the field. Until Morgan intentionally kicked the ball into touch sixteen minutes in, there hadn’t been a single stoppage, with the exception of the brief pause for his 40/20.
As with Origin, too, the team that managed to take control of the first pause took control of the first part of the game, with Isaac Liu conceding the first error of the night on the first tackle out of Morgan’s scrum, while an additional penalty gave the Cows an opportunity to take the two right in front of the posts. When errors come late, they often come rapidly, and sure enough Latrell Mitchell kicked too far on the subsequent restart, providing the visitors with yet another penalty and more field position to consolidate into their first try.
After over a quarter of an hour of continuous play, then, the Chooks had conceded three penalties in as many minutes. At first, Sydney City seemed to have been let off at the end of the subsequent set following a long kick from Morgan, only for Bunker footage to reveal that Jared Waerea-Hargreaves had played at the Steeden as it skidded into touch, granting the Cowboys the first goal line dropout of the evening.
A tackle later, Martin received the ball from Morgan and made up for his earlier error with a skidding, swerving show-and-go that totally disarmed Mitchell Pearce and Aiden Guerra, and saw the young five-eighth slamming over the line from almost forty metres out. Even better, he crossed under the posts, setting up Ethan Lowe for the easiest conversion of the night, as the Cows were roused by seeing that Martin could rise to the occasion and provide an appropriate platform for his halves partner to continue commandeering the game.
In the minutes that followed, North Queensland were as strong as I have ever seen, culminating with a wall of Cowboys jerseys slamming Ryan Matterson over the line and forcing the second goal line dropout of the night. At this point, the visitors had completed fifteen out of sixteen sets, and retained 62% possession, and were it not for Kyle Feldt coughing up a tricky pass from Morgan halfway through the next tackle count, they would almost certainly have scored here as well, so immense had their determination grown.
Still, with Jake Granville helping Sio Siua Taukeiaho to drop the ball a set later, the Cowboys regained possession once again, and Morgan engineered another goal line dropout after Pearce made the slightest of touches to his marked man’s fifth tackle kick. With Lowe putting down the ball much as Feldt had on the previous set, the Roosters finally got their own first penalty of the evening, and dug in to try and reclaim Allianz as their own.
They did so three minutes out from the break, as Mitchell made up for his earlier blunder much as Martin had, catching the Steeden on the chest after Feldt barely bothered to play a fifth tackle kick from Pearce. As with the Cowboys’ try, the Roosters joy came off the back of successive penalties – the first to get them down their end in the first place, and the second at the end of the subsequent set, when Justin O’Neill came out of his line to obstruct Ferguson from getting at the ball.
The footage of Feldt and Mitchell in the corner was some of the strangest this year, with the two wingers appearing to occupying totally different planes of space, as if in some kind of optical illusion in which the ball was heading to both at the same time, only to arrive at Mitchell and surprise both in the process. In fact, I can’t think of a recent try in which surprise played such a critical role, as Mitchell’s incredulity pivoted him around and over the line as much as any set play or planned movement.
It was a worrying moment for the Cowboys, not only because it handed momentum back to the Roosters just before the break, but because it culminated a series of poor decisions that had plagued Feldt ever since a punishing tackle in the opening minutes of the match had thrown him off his game. The Chooks seemed to know it as well, starting the second half right where they left off, and mirroring the Cows’ magnificent pack defence earlier in the game as four players dragged Coen Hess over the sideline on the first tackle and forced him to cough up the ball, in a direct rejoinder to the earlier move on Matterson.
To make things even better, it was Matterson himself who crashed over on the subsequent set, slamming through Lachlan Coote only for the Bunker to deem that Mitchell had obstructed Kane Linnett, and Michael Gordon had received the ball on the inside of Linnett’s shoulder, although a case could be made that the ex-Rooster had taken a bit of a dive as well. Still, four minutes later Pearce made good on the momentum with a terrific dummy, appearing set to shift to his inside man only to send the ball over to Boyd Cordner, who responded with a line break and the best run of the night to open up space for Conor Watson to sprint the last twenty metres and crash over to put the Roosters in front.
For ten minutes Sydney City enjoyed the lead, until Linnett crashed over off the back of Morgan’s single best try assist of the finals season (and possibly his single best try assist of the year). It was an achievement for Morgan to catch the Steeden at all for his fifth tackle, since it almost coasted over his shoulder, but what he did after that was even more inspired – a short, deft, pitch perfect pass that read the entire Roosters defence at a single glance.
In a way, it was like watching a great threading kick reimagined as a pass, since if the ball had moved even the slightest distance either way it would have all been for nothing. Given the Roosters’ resurgence at the beginning of the second stanza, combined with Morgan’s head injury a couple of minutes earlier, which had initially looked as if it might necessitate an HIA, this try assist was a critical team-building moment for the Cows – especially as Jason Taumalolo had just come back onto the park, where he had played a crucial role in building the field position for Morgan to send the Steeden across to Linnett in the first place.
With Lowe hooking the ball Thurston-style a couple of seconds after, you could almost see the Cowboys’ confidence growing before your eyes, as they played with a superhuman strength that nobody could have predicted at the the beginning of this finals seasons. If it hadn’t been for the Dogs winning over the Dragons these players would all have been three weeks into their summer holidays, and the improbability and even implausibility of making it to the grand final must have been a motivating factor for every Cowboy on the field.
Even if the Storm win, and even despite the significance of 2017 for Smith, Slater and Cronk, there can be no doubt that so far the Cowboys have the best finals narrative in years – even better, in some ways, than their win with Thurston and Scott in 2015. That narrative became just a little more extraordinary over the next ten minutes, with Ferguson putting down four more points for the Roosters only to rapidly concede four points to the Cowboys.
The first part of this two-part story started with Taukeiaho making the most of a fumble from O’Neill to get the Steeden across to Aubusson. Sensibly, the Roosters’ most reliable utility didn’t run too far, and instead sent the ball across to Ferguson before the Cowboys had a chance to scramble a defensive line together. As a result, Fergo was utterly unmarked, and to his credit he made the most of it, sprinting towards the line in one of the best short-distance dashes of the 2017 season.
Only Martin managed to lay a hand him, but he was unable to make a dent on Fergo’s massive frame at high speed, while Morgan only arrived after the ball hit the ground. Few players galvanise the Roosters at their best like Ferguson, if only because he can be so inconsistent – and after losing the ball earlier in the game this was a critical show of strength and determination, even if that made it all the more dispiriting when Fergo coughed up the ball for a second time on the restart, opening up space for North Queensland to put down their second try, which ironically came from Feldt in the opposite corner.
If there’s been a closer four points this year I haven’t seen them, as the North Queensland winger ground the ball with one hand as he was on the very cusp of being pushed into touch. Granted, that ability has become Feldt’s stock in trade, but what made this put down so spectacular was the freaky proximity of the Steeden to the sideline, with the Bunker spending some time trying to decide whether it had made contact with the turf before making contact with the chalk, and eventually concurring with the on field decision. By the time Lowe had channelled Thurston again from the sidelines, the Cowboys were back to a four point lead.
If Fergo had put down the most spectacular try of the night for the Roosters, then he had also enabled the most spectacular try of the night for the Cowboys, as well as the most spectacular conversion from Lowe. With Mitchell once again kicking the ball too far on the restart the Cowboys found themselves with another advantage, and then received another penalty to boot, making for an utterly galvanising final ten minutes of football, and an object lesson in how a team that expects to win can be unsettled by not winning.
Across this final stretch, virtually all the Roosters started to show lapses in judgment and uncharacteristic sloppiness, from JWH’s penalty that garnered the Cowboys their second penalty following Mitchell’s long kick, to a strange midfield bomb from Pearce about eight minutes out that didn’t seem to have any clear intention behind it. With Morgan’s second field goal in two weeks, and the second field goal of his career, North Queensland had already won by the time they received a goal line dropout in the final minute.
They weren’t done, however, with Scott Bolton putting down four more points, in the best single performance from a prop all night. Choosing to run the ball ten metres from the line – because why not? – he was almost taken down by Isaac Liu and Guerra, but got up and stormed through the tackle, ploughing through five more Roosters defenders to somehow ground the Steeden right on the line. It’s hard to think of a more emphatic demonstration of what the Cowboys could do without Scott, or a better justification for their decision to conserve their star prop’s talent unless he is absolutely necessary.
Nevertheless, this game – like the two before it – belonged to Morgan. While the Cowboys would never have chosen to be without Thurston, it has been incredible to see how this has allowed Morgan to reach heights that would never have been dreamed of while he was still occupying his former role at five-eighth. For all that the finals season has been focused on Smith, Slater and Cronk’s achievements, it’s this man who has been the most incredible talent throughout it all, and it’s going to be exciting to see how he handles the grand final.