Friday night’s match in Townsville was a pretty dramatic fixtures for both sides. On the one hand, Cameron Smith only needed three points to surpass Hasem El Masri as the top pointscorer in NRL history. At the same time, this match at 1300SMILES marked the first return of Sandor Earl after several years on the sidelines following his arrest for drug possession in 2015. On the other side of the Steeden, this was the 100th game for Jordan Kahu, while the Cows were desperate to come away with a home win after their twin losses to the Sharks and Raiders at 1300SMILES.
The first ten minutes was riddled with errors, paving the way for an unbelievably messy half of football from the Storm, who would come close to a historic nadir for possession and completion. The first mistake came from Earl, then Dale Finucane, then Kenny Bromwich, but the Cowboys failed to capitalise on any of these moments. They got an even better chance, however when Smith was pinged for a knock-on, only to insist, after the fact, that he’d never laid a hand to the football.
This time Smith was right, since the replay showed that he’d circled around the Steeden as it was popped back out of the scrum, and then slipped while trying to regather it, but nevertheless didn’t get even a fingertip to it. On the next set, Jake Clifford opted for a second tackle-kick, and ended up getting his side another set of six after Jahrome Hughes was trapped in goal.
Michael Morgan now stepped up, sending through a crossfield chip at the end of the next set, aiming for Gavin Cooper who indeed leapt up to pop it backwards, where it bounced forward off the Melbourne defence. From there, the footy ricocheted in goal, where Te Maire Martin surged ahead and flew through the air to pop it down a metre out from the dead ball line. In fact, Jordan Kahu was closer to the ball, but was forced to decelerate at the last minute, allowing his fullback to score the first points.
The Cows looked set to consolidate quickly, thanks to a beautiful offload from Morgan to Martin midway through the next set. Lighting-quick, this second phase option had tryscoring formation written all over it, but things didn’t come together at the end, as the final pass landed on Morgan’s boot, splitting the difference between a last-tackle kick and an incomplete set.Embed from Getty Images
Things now shifted back in the Storm’s favour, as a Brodie Croft kick trapped Ben Hampton in goal, getting the Storm their first dropout of the night, and marking the start of a sustained period of field position that would force the Cowboys to bring all their defensive mettle to bear upon keeping them out. Munster was the first casuality, however, almost reporting Josh Maguire for an eye gouge, only to brush it aside and get on with the business of attacking the line.
Moments later, a Will Chambers kick ricocheted off the Cowboys defence on the fourth tackle, but it came off a Jordan Maclean error, giving the Storm another chance at putting down their first points. It was a big anticlimax, then, when Dale Finucane simply dropped the footy midway through the next set, the very definition of an unforced error. This was a serious letoff for the Cows after such a sustained period of defence, especially when a slow peel from Marion Seve got them halfway down the field.
The reprieve didn’t last for long, however, as Morgan concluded the set by booting the ball directly towards Josh Ado-Carr, who caught it on the full in goal, and rushed back up the field for a seven tackle set. By the time that a Munster kick trapped Martin in goal at the other end, it was as if this brief period of North Queensland possession had never happened, and the Storm had simply enjoyed three straight dropouts, rather than two dropouts and then a third a set later.
Everything was now in place for the Storm to score, but Earl showed his rustiness at the tail end of Jake Clifford’s kick, fumbling the footy on the side of the field, partly because Felise Kaufusi got in his line of sight as he was trying to clean it up. This was starting to turn into a bit of a dour game for Smith’s testimonial, especially since the purple army had only completed six of twelve sets, and were starting to glimpse some of the lowest possession statistics during the Cameron Smith era.
What the visitors needed was a breakout play, a way of resetting their momentum – and Hughes provided it shortly after, catching the high ball on his chest and making his way halfway down the field before the Cowboys knew what had hit them. Nene Macdonald took out their collective frustration with a brutal second effort on Munster, gifting the Storm another set of six, and another chance at the line. It was a pretty uncharacteristic moment from the ex-Dragon, suggesting that the Cows were starting to get spooked by not having managed to get any points on the board yet.Embed from Getty Images
Six minutes out, Morgan steadied the ship with a 40/20, while an offside penalty from Croft got them a boost moments later. Despite the fact that the Storm were starting to flag, the Cows chose to take the two, putting them beyond a converted try, as the first stanza ended with Hasem El Masri still the best pointscorer in the NRL. Clearly, the Storm needed to come back more Storm-like, determined to score points immediately and clinically, and to regain the momentum however they could.
That’s just what they did in the opening minutes of the second stanza, as Munster collected the footy from Smith, and then sent it outside to Chambers. From there, the Queensland representative wove his way up to the line from about fifteen minutes out. Martin was unable to get to him, Cooper arrived much too late, while Tuala was ultimately too hesitant – a combined chink in the North Queensland armour that Chambers read perfectly, in what was possibly his best game so far in 2019.
Fifteen minutes in, a flop from Kurt Baptiste got the Storm the first penalty kick of the night. In another match, this would just be two points, but as Smith booted the Steeden through the posts, he became the game’s equal top-tryscorer with El Masri. It felt right that this achievement came with a penalty kick, and was a solo effort from Smith, giving him just a little bit more space to shine as he entered NRL history – or entered NRL history once again.
The Storm continued to hunger for points, and their next big effort involved the most eccentric pair of kicks in the whole game. The first came from Munster, on the first tackle out of the scrum, and found Ado-Carr, who scooped it up at just the right moment about fifteen metres out from the line. Hughes now booted the ball through again on the second tackle – a trick play, or trick sequence, that would have paid dividends if Ben Hampton hadn’t been in just the right place to clean it all up.
Twenty minutes in, Smith came as close as any player ever has to a 40/20, weighting the ball perfectly, only for it to bounce vertically half a metre out from the sideline, allowing the home team to scoop it up and start working their way back down the park. Nevertheless, the Storm would be the next to score, thanks to some brilliant strategy from Hughes, who collected the footy when Clifford and Macdonald were still rolling away from a tackle on Chambers, and then set the next try in motion.Embed from Getty Images
First Hughes headed to the right, then he danced back to the left, making his way to the twenty where he kicked at speed. If the kick was good, the putdown was even better, as the Fox looked like he was running for fun, in a state of pure flow, as he gathered the footy and got it to ground. Full credit has to go to Munster, too, who managed to give his winger just enough space to get the ball down, while not obstructing the play either.
The Fox made it a double ten minutes out from the end, on the back of a bullet cut-out pass from Munster. In slow motion, there was the briefest of questions as to whether Ado-Carr’s foot had brushed along the sideline, but with an on-field ruling of try it had to be ratified, as Smith now missed his second conversion to remain just behind El Masri on the tryscoring ladder.
Yet North Queensland got back on the scoreboard quicker than anyone might have expected, thanks to the luckiest break of the night since Smith was pinged for the knock-on that never was. Right on the Melbourne line, and with purple jerseys crowding in from every angle, Kahu flicked the footy around behind his back, for a no look pass that was clearly forward on the replay – and clearly forward from the sideline – but was called a try by the refs when Hampton collected it and crashed over.
Kahu didn’t add the extras, but it didn’t especially matter, since by this stage it was clear that the next team to score a try would probably win. As it turned out, however, no more tries eventuated, while pointscoring itself was eclipsed by a pretty ugly spectacle in the final minutes of the match. Despite two North Queensland players being felled, play continued down the other end of the field, where Baptiste got a penalty for a tackle on Munster while his legs were still in the air.
While this penalty was fair, it shouldn’t have happened in the first place, since neither of the two Cowboys players were suffering from cramps, or playing for time. The situation was especially serious for Macdonald, who ended up being stretchered off the field with what turned out to be a shattering ankle injury, evident enough during the replay that the touch judges should have been aware of it, or at least halted play when they saw that Macdonald was seriously in pain.Embed from Getty Images
While Smith booted through his record-breaking kick on the back of Baptiste’s try, then, it was overshadowed by the problems that had emerged with NRL procedure around injured players. Despite a few more good chances, the Cowboys wouldn’t score any more points, making for the most heartbreaking of their recent trio of losses in Townsville. They’ll be looking for a solid win next Saturday, then, when they travel to Mt. Smart to take on the Warriors – and perhaps an away game will be good for them, taking them out of the 1300SMILES headspace.
On the other side of the Steeden, this was hardly a consistent performance from the Storm, and hardly convincing in the first half either. They’ll be looking for a more decisive victory in Round 6, then, especially since their clash with the Roosters promises to be one of the most hyped matches of the next couple of weeks – a challenge to both teams to prove to themselves and their fans just how good they really are.