Given their respective positions on the ladder, you might expect the Broncos to triumph over the Cowboys at this point in the season, even during a North Queensland home game, but expectations were a bit lopsided after their recent matches against the Bulldogs and Roosters. On the one hand, Darius Boyd was back at fullback, but Jordan Maclean’s return to the North Queensland squad has made its mark more and more with each week, while Te Maire Martin put in a stunning argument for North Queensland custodian from the opening minutes of the game.
Add to that the fact that the Cowboys were clearly determined to send Thurston off in style for the first part of his two-part farewell at 1300SMILES Stadium, and the game was set for one of the best Queensland derbies in years, even if it started in a bit of a fitful way thanks to what appeared to be a deflated football. Still, the Broncos got points early on, with a slow peel from Jake Granville gifting Jamayne Isaako the chance to kick for goal.
Brisbane got another chance shortly after thanks to an error in the play-the-ball from Kyle Feldt, and James Roberts made the most of it with a barnstorming run right up to the line on the first tackle. At the end of the set, Kodi Nikorima offloaded while he was hanging, mid-tackle, above the chalk, in what could have been the pass of the Brisbane season if it had found a Broncos player, but instead Kane Linnett got to it.
At the other end of the field, Martin showed his chops in the no. 1 jersey by taking the football right into the defensive line, drawing in Boyd before he booted it through the Broncos wall, where Gideon Gela Mosby showed some quick thinking to scoot around Jamayne Isaako and get it to ground. For now, at least, the ex-Panther had won the battle of the fullbacks, and the Broncs had to regather quickly to avoid rueing the decision to shift their veteran back to the role of team custodian.
For a moment, it looked as if they’d succeeded when Sam Thaiday, playing in his 300th game, set up Milford for a short ball to get Alex Glenn into open space on the left edge of the field. The momentum was good as the Steeden shifted back into the centre, where Boyd and Milford linked up nicely, but it all came to nothing when Nikorima coughed up a pass, creating a real sense of deflation for the visiting side.
The Cows, however, surged forward on the shift in rhythm, resulting in a nice sequence for Johnathan Thurston. First, a good kick from J.T. got a dropout after it trapped Isaako in the in goal area, while a penalty for Patrick Mago for a hand in the ruck on the next set allowed Thurston to mirror Isaako’s opening kick with a penalty goal of his own. Shortly after, Boyd seemed to have cleaned up a last-tackle kick from the Cowboys halfback, only to lose it under the pressure of a combined tackle, and some powerful contact, from Martin and Jake Clifford.
Jason Taumalolo seized the opportunity and read the play perfectly, scooping up the Steeden and shrugging out of a tackle from Isaako to get to the chalk before Milford had a chance to hold him up. Given how clinically he disposed of James Tedesco last week, it was a pity not to see the other J.T. take on more tacklers, but the relatively clear passage did give him the opportunity to showcase his short-range speed more starkly than at virtually any other point this year, for his first try in sixteen matches.
With the game leaning so heavily in the Cowboys’ direction, the Broncos needed a strong one-man effort to get the team back on the board and provide them with some leadership and vision. It was the kind of moment that called for Roberts’ burning speed, but also the kind of moment where Roberts can make a risky decision that doesn’t quite pay off. It was cathartic for the away crowd, then, when Jimmy got back at the Cows for Linnett’s intercept of Nikorima’s offload earlier in the match with an intercept of his own, as he seized the footy mid-air and ran the length of the field for one of the most triumphant Brisbane long-range efforts in weeks.
While Gela-Mosby might be touted for his speed and footwork, there was no doubt who was the fastest man on the field at this moment, since even in regular speed the chasers looked as if they were running in slow motion, so effortlessly had Roberts got ahead of him. The Broncs compounded their lead with a try from Matt Lodge, who collected the football from Andrew McCullough to get over the line for what initially looked like another four or six points for his team.
It turned out to be another eight points, however, with the referees making the pretty contentious decision to award an eight point try and put Martin on report after his knees made contact with Lodge’s face as he got the footy to ground. The fact that Thurston swore while contending with the referee said something about how the decision was received, and the frustration of it seemed to percolate out across the rest of the second stanza for the Cows, most notably when Thurston himself ended up having disqualified a try from Gela-Mosby a few sets later after kicking behind Gavin Cooper, who had just made contact with Nikorima.
The score looked to be set at 16-16 as both teams headed into the sheds, only for a shoulder charge on John Asiata from Joe Ofahengaue to give the Cowboys a penalty with less than a minute on the clock. In a flashback to old school rugby league, Feldt chose to opt for a long-range penalty goal, booting the ball through the posts from fifty-five metres out, for one of the best moments of the North Queensland season.
Not only was it a resounding way for the Cows to regain ownership of 1300SMILES in the wake of Brisbane’s eight-point goal, but it was a poignant and moving image of the courage and spirit they’ve shown in the face of a fairly inconsistent and disappointing final season for Thurston. Unfortunately, however, that stunning spectacle didn’t give them any legs at the start of the second half, with Isaako clocking up a penalty goal eight minutes in after Sims milked a penalty.
Things just got worse from there for the home side, thanks to a penalty for Martin for a second effort right on the North Queensland line. Without a second thought, the Broncos chose to tap and go, and a short ball from McCullough to Sims was all it took for the visitors to put four more points on the board, and six once Isaako had added the extras. It happened so quickly and suddenly that it seemed literally effortless, but a replay showed just how elegantly Sims had timed his line and read the play, leaving many of the Cows scrambling to defend before they realized the ball had been put down.
Brisbane went over again shortly after, in what felt like a team try, even if it only involved a small handful of players. So perfectly timed was the sequence of passes across the face of the ruck, however, that when the footy finally arrived at Nikorima he was in prime position to draw Thurston in off his line and flick it across to Pangai, who stormed through the line and dodged so easily around the Cowboys defence that it barely seemed to be there.
North Queensland now needed a game-changer much as Brisbane had in the first stanza, so it was pretty inspiring to see Feldt cross over in the corner a couple of sets later. With the exception of Thurston, no other North Queenslander has the same ability to regalvanise the team in clutch situations, and the big winger was helped out here by a superb catch and pass from Justin O’Neill a millisecond before he was smashed by the defence.
It was doubly frustrating, then, when Thurston failed to add the extras, since it would have put North Queensland a converted try behind. Even eight points wasn’t a huge impediment with fifteen minutes left on the clock though, and the Cows set straight to work narrowing the margin, clocking up a converted try a minute later when Gavin Cooper simply slammed through Pangai, Nikorima and McCullough on the back of a short ball from Matt Scott right on the Brisbane line.
This was exactly the show of brute force that North Queensland needed to consolidate their comeback, especially given how dexterously Pangai had showcased the Brisbane forward pack a couple of minutes before. With Thurston penalized for a strip on the back of a Clifford bomb, however, the Broncos got another shot, and for a moment it looked as if they’d scored again, after Milford crossed over on the back of a McCullough grubber.
Like Josh Ado-Carr’s try earlier in the year, however, Milf’s putdown was reversed, due to David Fifita not having played the ball properly to give McCullough his platform in the first place. It was the let-off the Cows needed, and while the Broncos might have received a dropout, a brain explosion saw Milford grubbering on play three, and Martin cleaning up the footy just as quickly. At the other end of the field, O’Neill put in one of the best clutch grubbers of the night, and Feldt almost got to it, only for Nikorima to storm in and kick it out of the field of play at the last minute.
On the next North Queensland set both Taumalolo and Hess came close to crashing over, but it was starting to feel as if the momentum was ebbing away from the Cowboys, so many opportunities and let-offs had they had since scoring their last two tries. A poor kick decision from Gehamat Shibasaki abruptly changed all that, providing the hosts with yet another bout of field position, at the end of which Thurston sent through a grubber that Milford knocked back, leaving the Steeden spiraling in the air before Hess grabbed it and grounded it, with the momentum of the putdown flinging him over the dead ball line like he was Superman.
After such a disappointing season in so many respects, there was something especially heartwarming and cathartic about seeing North Queensland come away with this win, especially given that Thurston played such a critical role in the final four points. On the other side of the Steeden, the Broncos have received a very rude shock after being beaten by two bottom eight teams in as many weeks, and are going to be looking to come away with a hefty win when they take on the Bunnies at Suncorp next Thursday night.