Matches at Carrington Park always have an especially visceral quality, especially when the two teams involved have made such different efforts to get there. While the Panthers were in Bathurst from Tuesday onwards in the buildup to Saturday evening’s game, the Cowboys ran out to the field on the back of a flight to Sydney, a flight to Orange, and then a bus trip to Bathurst, making this almost as grueling a commute – or perhaps even more so – than their fixtures in Auckland or Melbourne.
To make matters worse, the Cows have suffered a pair of fairly debilitating defeats to the Raiders and the Bulldogs over the last month, alternating between wins and losses in a way that made it necessary for them to really stamp their signature onto this game to avoid descending into mid-season limbo. Meanwhile, Penrith might have won three out of their last four games, but the addition of Trent Merrin and Dylan Edwards to their growing injury bench made this a bit uncertain for them too.
From the outset, North Queensland were dominant, although for a moment there it looked unclear how or when they would make the most of their dominance. Despite a powerful opening set and three linebreaks in the first twelve minutes they didn’t put down points as quickly as might be expected, with a forward pass from Jason Taumalolo to Lachlan Coote shortly after the second linebreak summarising the sense that a try was just within reach, but just as perpetually frustrated and elusive.
Still, the Cows’ attack depleted a Panthers defence that was already depleted in the absence of some of their key players, culminating with a cut-out pass from Jake Granville that saw Michael Morgan crash over the line for the first four points of the night. While Isaah Yeo, Billy Kikau and Dallin Watene Zelezniak were unable to get there in time, the critical ingredient here was James Maloney, who’s become the lynchpin ofthe Penrith side as one big name after another has succumbed to injury, and who let Morgan through here with an uncharacteristically bad read of the play.
For a moment, it looked as if the Cowboys wouldn’t manage back-to-back tries, after they coughed up the Steeden on the second tackle of the restart. They got it back just as quickly, however, when Kikau got right up to the line on the second tackle on the next set and offloaded to Tyrone Peachey just before hitting the turf – a move that might have disheveled North Queensland at the start of the season, but which simply allowed them to showcase their renewed defensive aptitude here, as Matt Scott ran in to not only clean up the tackle, but force Peachey to knock it on as well.
It was a rousing moment for North Queensland fans, and one of the most striking suggestions yet that they’re returning to their form from the end of last year, while managing to reincorporate Scott and Thurston into the equation. Sure enough, they scored four more points at the end of the next set, after Corey Harawira-Naera gave away an ill-timed penalty early in the count for holding on for too long in the tackle.
If Morgan’s try had been clinical, then Ben Hampton’s was brutal, with the young centre collecting the footy about fifteen minutes out from the line and then eluding Tyrone Phillips, Maloney and DWZ to put four more on the board for North Queensland. Once again, Maloney was the decisive factor, lunging forward for an ankle tap that Hampton simply danced around. It felt as if he’d crossed over untouched, so cleanly did he slice through the defence, and with Thurston booting the ball through the uprights the Cowboys were now two converted tries in front.
While it took a while for the next try to be scored, the next segment of the first stanza followed much the same pattern. On the one hand, Thurston joined the 2100 club after the Cows got a shot at penalty goal, while, on the other hand, DWZ found himself binned with eight minutes to go for throwing a punch during a fracas initiated by Kyle Feldt, leaving the Panthers with a twelve-man team, in a deficit that felt as symbolic as much as anything else, given the frequency with which they’ve seen their biggest names taken off the field for injuries over the last couple of weeks.
Symbolic it might have felt, but DWZ’s absence had pretty immediate repercussions on the field as well, with Gavin Cooper linking up with Thurston to cross over shortly after, adding another six points to the board for North Queensland. Still, the Panthers tightened their defence as the clock wound down, with Harawira-Naera putting in a terrific trysaving tackle in the centres to contain Justin O’Neill and thereby prevent what would have been a certain four points for North Queensland.
That tackle was almost as good as a try, contributing to a last minute surge in momentum that saw Phillips score down the other end of the field with fifty seconds to go. It was bookended by some superb work from Peachey, who offloaded to Wallace right in front of the posts and then got in position for a cut-out pass to Isaah Yeo that set up the big second rower for a one-handed flick pass across to Phillips.
So dominant had the Cows been over the opening stanza that this was tantamount to a drastic shift in momentum, especially since Penrith were still a man down. Even if they hadn’t been a team that thrives on second half comebacks, then, the mountain men would still have run back out onto the field with a renewed spring in their step – a confidence that was only enhanced when DWZ returned and then Shaun Fensom was sinbinned almost immediately, a symmetry that seemed to signal that the tides of the game had turned in favour of the visitors in a quite decisive way.
Sure enough, the Panthers now proceeded to make even more of a twelve-man team than the Cows had, with James Fisher-Harris slamming over Coote and Granville to split the North Queensland defence in half, leaving them reeling and vulnerable for Peter Wallace to simply lunge at the line from dummy half, going so far as to slam the footy on Coen Hess’ boot before sliding it over and onto the chalk.
If this was a rousing moment for the Penrith fans, then the crowd went crazy when Wallace managed to get a double on the restart – the first of his career, and a terrific way to celebrate his 100th game for the Panthers, especially given that these were his first two tries of the 2018 season. It started with Harawira-Naera monstering Thurston on his way up the field, and ended with a decent kick from Maloney that DWZ tapped back over Coote, setting up Wallace to score in almost the same spot as he had the first time around, bringing Penrith to within four points of North Queensland once Maloney bookended it by slotting the Steeden through the posts.
Things took another quick turn shortly after, however, as a high shot from Wallace on Coote at the other end of the field returned possession to the Cowboys, who quickly consolidated and even mirrored Penrith’s brilliant form over the last ten minutes, culminating with a piece of play that felt like their own version of Wallace’s second try. Finding himself under the high ball, O’Neill tapped it back much as DWZ had done, allowing Thurston to scoop it up and score his first try of the 2018 season.
In fact, J.T. had only been in position to get it because Peachey had edged him out of the way, but that just made these four points an even greater testament to the master’s grace under pressure, in what will surely come to be seen as a definitive moment in the Cowboys’ comeback narrative of 2018. The Panthers didn’t give them long to enjoy it, though, with a dummy and linebreak from Sione Katoa and then a quick ball to DWZ providing Maloney with the field position to execute a quick kick to the right wing before the Cows’ could regather, where Phillips put down a double.
In some ways, a scoreline of 20-24 already felt like a victory for the Panthers given their struggles over the first half, and the absence of so many players from their team. Of course, that just made them all the more desperate to secure the competition points, and yet both teams struggled to score over the remainder of the game, with the Cows only managing to slot through a solitary penalty goal at the seventieth minute after a dangerous tackle from Peachey at just the wrong moment.
Even so, North Queensland were only a converted try ahead – a much smaller lead than might have been expected from the opening minutes. Frustratingly for the Panthers, however, they weren’t able to resume the stunning momentum that they’d showcased at the beginning of the second stanza, coming away with a loss they’re going to be anxious to remedy when they take on the Knights next week. Meanwhile, the Cows have started to find their feet again in 2018, and will be looking to consolidate against the Wests Tigers at Leichhardt Oval on Thursday night.