ROUND 4: North Queensland Cowboys v. Canberra Raiders (1300SMILES Stadium, 6/4/19)

The Raiders were fresh off a win over the Knights when they flew to 1300SMILES to take on the Cowboys on Saturday night, while the Cows were still smarting after their defeat to Cronulla the week before. The game started with a short side play, as Hodgson shifted the footy out through Joey Leilua to Jordan Rapana, where Te Maire Martin came up with a powerful trysaver, only for Javid Bowen to make a mistake immediately after.

With a big bounce from the ball out of the scrum, the Raiders continued to work on their right edge attack, as Luke Bataman and Josh Papalii asked some serious questions of the North Queensland defence. All of a sudden, Josh Hodgson and Sam Williams sent the football back in the other direction on the fourth tackle, where a sweeping move to the left edge allowed Nick Cotric to slam across in the corner for the first four points of the afternoon.

It was originally called a knock-on, rather than no try, but the replay showed that Cotric had managed to gather the Steeden into the crook of his elbow, keeping it close to his chest as Nene Maconald crashed down on top of him. While the ball rotated a little in the air, there was no question that he’d got it done, nor of his consummate timing in managing to make contact with the turf just before he was bundled into touch.

In the one-on-one battle between Macdonald and Cotric, the big Canberra winger had prevailed – not a great start for the Cowboys following their dispiriting performance against the Sharks the week before. Full credit has to go to Croker for the try assist as well, since the rhythm and dynamism of the preceding passage of play meant that he was able to pretty much reach out a palm and hand the footy over to Cotric. Croker didn’t make the conversion, however, bouncing the ball off the uprights to keep the Raiders to a four point lead.

Canberra now followed up with a big set, including staunch opening runs from Papalii and Dunamis Loa. The Lepana magic crystallised at the end of it, off the back of a kick from Williams, and a second error from Bowen, who knocked the football on while trying to regather it under severe pressure from the Raiders’ attack. At first, there was a question of whether there’d been some foul play from Leilua, but the bunker footage showed that he’d merely ricocheted the footy off his shin, and then helped Rapana on his way to the play.

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While Joey may never have got the ball in hand, then, this was still a Lepana moment. Not only did the Raiders now have back to back tries, but both had come off errors from Bowen, while Rapana had scored in back to back fixtures against North Queensland as well. Nevertheless, the scoreline wasn’t that drastic, since Croker now missed the conversion again, not quite managing to nail a difficult angle, and sending the footy soaring past the posts, as the Cows got ready to dig in.

For a moment, it looked as if the Raiders might be in for another tryscoring set, as the subsequent kick from Jake Clifford went too far, gifting the green machine another bout of field position. But with Hodgson losing the ball on their next run, their opening momentum started to wane, and the Cowboys gradually regathered, making the next fifteen minutes more of a level playing field than this sterling opening pair of points for Canberra might have foreboded.

With eighteen minutes to go, Williams booted through a promising kick, and John Bateman chased it down, but Bowen now stepped up, managing to arrive in time topop the ball into touch. Nevertheless, this would lead to the start of a sustained and accelerating period of field position for the Raiders, starting with Elliott Whitehead slamming into the Cowboys’ right defence midway through the next set.

Taking the reins over from the ref, Whitehead put up his hand to signal six again, and the refs agreed, allowing the Raiders to continue so quickly that it was more like they had received an extended set rather than a repeat set. Now they headed right, where Charnze Nikoll-Klokstad put in an enormous double fend on Morgan, and almost burst through a couple of tackles, before Leilua added a follow-up effort.

This time, the Lepana magic didn’t work, as Jordan found the footy spiraling out of his grasp, but the call went Canberra’s way. Moments later, Granville got pinged, and the Raiders looked set to tap and go, only for a call from the sideline to direct Croker to set up the tee and boot through their next two points. If this was a letoff for the Cowboys, then Hodgson’s overlong kick on the restart was a boon, heading a good seven or eight metres over the sideline on the full, gifting North Queensland their first big chance in some time.

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Now it was the home team’s chance for some sustained possession, as Morgan almost broke through the line on the fourth tackle, and a Clifford kick was knocked down. At first, Soliola seemed poised to scoop it up, but Jake managed to get to it instead, ensuring his team a repeat set in the process. John Asiata and Coen Hess were now both held up to the left of the posts, before Hess tried to shift the footy to the right, but the North Queensland attack had no dynamism during this period, especially when the ball was in motion, as Granville compounded things with a handling error a moment later.

Like Rapana’s fumble a few minutes before, however, this turned out to be a penalty, as Wighton was called out for a slow peel, and the Cows got set to take another shot at the line. Once again, Asiata dummied and ran, while Wighton was forced to make up for his error almost immediately, with one of the key trysavers of the night on Josh Maguire. Yet with Clifford losing the footy on the third tackle, all that field position had come to nothing, as both teams had proven unable to score despite repeat sets right on their opponent’s line.

A handling error from Rapana early in the next set gave the Cows the chance they finally needed. For a moment, they seemed destined to get bogged down again in short runs up through the posts, but then Morgan glimpsed some space on the left edge, and started the sweeping, dynamic passage of play that North Queensland had been yearning for all night. The Canberra defence prevented them getting too far, but it didn’t really matter, since Morgan managed to take advantage of a poor defensive read from Williams to pop the Steeden across to Gavin Cooper to slam down and score.

After such a long period without points for Canberra, and with Jordan Kahu booting through the extras, it very much felt as if the Cowboys were back in the game. They got another chance pretty quickly, following a slow peel from Corey Horsburgh, but it all came to nothing when Te Maire Martin sent through a last-tackle option that travelled all of five centimetres before Wighton gathered it up and started making his way back down the field.

With a leg pull from Francis Molo, the Raiders now had everything in place for another superb Lepana moment, thanks in part to a deft pass from CNK out to his right winger on the very edge of the field. It had been a hard night for Bowen, who fell back at just the right moment for the Canberra winger to pop the footy over, allowing Rapana to get a kick away at high speed.

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In its vision and dexterity, it was up there with Rapana’s high-speed kick from the sideline against the Tigers in 2017. This time, however, the ball came even closer to the edge of his boot, resulting in an oblique bounce back into the field of play as Leilua was charging it down. If Joey was concerned, he didn’t show it, reading the angle perfectly as he reached out an arm, gathered the Steeden to his body, and slammed it to ground for another four points.

With Leilua scoring beneath the posts, Croker now got the easiest conversion of the night, slotting through two points to make the Canberra lead a little more secure. No more points would be scored in the first half, but Williams would attempt a field goal in the final minute, as if spooked by the last two games played in Round 4, both of which had ended in agonising golden point wins against teams that had started dominant – from the Panthers over the Tigers on Friday night, and from the Sea Eagles over the Bunnies earlier in the afternoon.

The Raiders also got the first points after the break, as a lost ball from Martin two minutes in, and a hand in the ruck from Hess shortly after, laid the platform for Croker to send through another penalty kick to bring Canberra triple the Cowboys at 6-18. Finally, the Raiders seemed to have reached a comfortable lead, while Croker finally seemed to have made up for his first two conversion misses as well.

To get themselves back in the game, the Cows needed a big show of strength, and Clifford and Macdonald provided it when they dragged CNK in goal about ten minutes later. Wighton went for a long dropout down the middle of field, as if trying to tempt North Queensland into the ruck runs that had served them so poorly right on the line, but instead the Cowboys used this next set to solidify the left edge attack that had eluded them so frustratingly throughout the game.

Initially, the footy got as far left as Granville, who was forced to send it back inside to Matt Scott. From there, Scott tried another short-range run at the posts, but it ended in much the same way as Asiata and Hess’ bursts had ended earlier in the game – with him being brought to ground just out from the turf, unable to offload or garner the dynamism that the Cowboys so desperately needed. Once again, Morgan now stepped up and added that dynamism, collecting the footy on Scott’s outside, before pivoting of his right foot, eluding Bateman, and dancing around the defence to pop it over to Asiata.

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The whole thing had played like a twist on the left edge sweep that the Raiders had expected from the Cowboys – or expected the Cowboys to botch – capped by Asiata becoming the emblem of North Queensland’s newfound confidence, rather than the more unimaginative short-range efforts that they had foisted upon him earlier in the match. All of a sudden, the Cows were back in the game, and got a terrific chance to level the score an hour in when Cotric made a handling error right on the Canberra line.

At first, it looked as if Granville might have made an error at the scrum base, but the ref OK’d it as the Cows started to roll once again. By this stage, it was clear that Morgan was the main playmaker, but the Raiders had learned their lesson, containing him with a pack effort right where he’d set up Cooper and Asiata, before he could offload or break through the line himself. The set ended with a crossfield kick from Clifford, which led to the nadir of the night for Bowen, who found the ball simply stolen in front of his eyes as Rapana outleapt him to regain possession of it.

Prior to this period, the Cows had seemed on the verge of regrouping, so this was a sign that the match was finally starting to shift back in Canberra’s direction. The death knell for North Queensland came when Mitch Dunn made an error, gifting the Raiders the advantage, only for the visitors to put in the worst play of the night directly out of the scrum – a long pass from Hodgson that Leilua somehow let bounce through his legs, rather than managing to scoop it up and score.

This should have been the moment when North Queensland took control of the game, but instead Morgan knocked on while collecting the footy, while an error from Clifford midway through the next set saw the Raiders get the ball back in hand, and enjoy one of the biggest letoffs of Round 4. It turned out to be than a letoff, however, as Williams booted the Steeden over the sideline to get his men some breathing-space in the scrum, only for a second effort from Dunn to get the Raiders the easiest try of the night.

All it took was a brief movement to the left, where Croker got the ball across to Cotric, who sent it back in after realising he didn’t quite have enough space. With those four points, he became the third most-capped Raider, sending through the conversion this time for good measure. Not only were Canberra now two converted tries ahead, but they’d followed the most serious challenge from the Cowboys, and the most serious dangers for the Raiders, with the simplest try of the game. This gave them the second wind they needed to smash over a couple of minutes later.

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These final points came from none other than Rapana, who managed to just brush the ball to the line under one of the most frantic North Queensland efforts of the night. Despite some scares in the middle part of the game, the Raiders had bookended it with two terrific pairs of tries, while Rapana had bookended it with a double – an appropriate end to an evening where the cult winger had played a role in so many moments, and where the old Lepana magic had been on display.

This is now two pretty underwhelming efforts from the Cowboys at their home venue, so they’ll be looking to take advantage of the Townsville crowd when they host the Storm next week. On the other side of the Steeden, the Raiders will be keen to carry this momentum into their own next home fixture at GIO Stadium, where they’ll be hosting a Parramatta outfit galvanised by their stunning win over the Sharks this same evening, and their return to form after losing to the Roosters the week before.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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