It’d be hard to beat last week’s game in Melbourne for spectacle, not just because of the four sin bins and sendoff for Curtis Scott, but because it was easily one of the Storm’s worst performances in years. The purple army were keen to consign it to the past as quickly as possible, then, when they ran out onto the park at 1300SMILES on Friday night, while the Cowboys were just as keen to take advantage of Melbourne’s vulnerability in the wake of their loss to Manly, especially with the late news that Billy Slater would be off the field due to a hamstring injury sustained over the week.
The game had an added emotional charge in that this might well be the last time that Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith play against each other, although their opening welcome on the field was immediately subsumed into a pretty desperate game for both sides. In a bad omen for North Queensland, Thurston took a penalty kick early on, only for it to bounce off the left upright and back onto the field, where Young Tounamipea came up with it, resulting in a Melbourne set of six that saw Jason Taumalolo flattened by Nelson Asofa-Solomona at the other end of the field.
The spectacle of the other JT brought to ground is not something we typically see, especially in Townsville, and while Kyle Feldt made a terrific run on the next set to get beyond the thirty on the first tackle, it all came to nought when Ben Hampton lost the footy on the fourth. Still, the Cows got their own back with a massive, emotional hit-up from Matt Scott on Tounamipea – perhaps the best single hit-up of the North Queensland season – leading to a period of field position in which Gavin Cooper broke through the line only to lose the Steeden just as he was grounding it.
While the Cowboys might have been desperate, the Storm were almost as sloppy as last week as well. Whether because Slater’s absence offset Smith’s presence, or because the team were skittish from the Manly loss, they couldn’t quite bring things together over these opening minutes. A set fifteen minutes out from the break said it all, where a bounce pass from Smith – one of several in this half – was momentarily redeemed by Joe Stimson crashing over on the fourth tackle, only for the Cows to showcase their best goal line defence of the evening to keep him out.
At the end of it all, Smith tried to burrow over out of dummy half, but was held up. He’d score the first points of the night shortly after, though, but on the back of one of the Bunker’s worst decision in weeks. It came by way of an on-field ruling of dropout after a skirmish between Thurston and Suliasi Vunivalu saw the Steeden tumble into touch on the Storm’s right edge, only for the replay to show that the footy had come off the Melbourne winger’s chest, and that JT hadn’t made contact.
What initially looked like a dropout now presented as a canny – if lucky – effort on Thurston’s part to prevent Vunivalu getting to the footy, but the Bunker didn’t see it that way, awarding the dropout that would culminate with Smith’s try. After Te Maire Martin was called offside, the Storm got another set of six, and from there a further dropout sealed the deal, with Smith crossing the line from half a metre out.
In a mirror image of Thurston’s opening kick, Smith’s conversion bounced off the uprights, but the four point lead still felt pretty emphatic after a scoreless opening stanza. With a penalty goal early in the second stanza the Storm managed to put themselves a full converted try ahead, laying the platform for a period of renewed concentration and strength that nevertheless culminated with them losing the football early in the seven tackle set that might have guaranteed them the game.
The next points came for the Cowboys, and initially looked to build on a classic Thurston-Feldt combination, only for Martin to kick at the last moment. Reading the play perfectly, Feldt remained sufficiently onside to accommodate the second option kicker, spinning around in the air above Vunivalu to catch the football before planting it in the corner as the Melbourne winger dragged him into touch. In its judgement, dexterity and speed – its balletic grace – it was the best possible way for the Cows to get back in the game, especially once JT booted through the conversion.
With ten minutes on the board, neither team looked like scoring another try, as both got in place to slot through a field goal. A particularly bad period ensued for Morgan, who popped the footy forward at the tail end of what could have been a match-winning set for the Cows, and then sent a penalty kick out on the full during the next set, allowing Vunivalu to catch it and lay the platform for the sequence that would culminate with Cameron Munster slotting through the first field goal of his career.
North Queensland got a last chance after some messy play from Dale Finucane saw Jake Granville regain possession and run thirty metres, with Morgan aiming for a field goal only for the footy to ricochet off the Melbourne defence. For a moment, this looked like a blessing in disguise for the Cowboys, as some quick fumbling got Morgan in place to crash over to the left of the posts, but the slightest of obstructions dmeant that the on-field ruling of no try was maintained by the Bunker.
The last few minutes passed in a bit of a blur for the Cows, and especially for Thurston, who put in the single worst field goal attempt of his career with a wobbly kick that Tounamaipea actually caught on the full in the goal area. In the very last second of the game, JT also lost the ball backwards right on the line, allowing Felise Kaufusi to step in and get it to ground for what would have been a second try for the Storm if he hadn’t bobbled it a bit in the process – an almost unbearable prospect for North Queensland fans to contemplate after such a mixed night from Thurston.
That said, the Cows easily could have won this, since it was only the slight obstruction during Morgan’s try, and the bad call over the Bunker preceding Smith’s try, that prevented them heading into the sheds twelve-nil. They’ll still be looking to come up with something special when they take on a pretty confident Sea Eagles outfit at Lottoland next week, while the Storm will be keen to make the most of the bye to regroup after a fairly unconvincing win following their massive loss to Manly.