The two most geographically remote teams in the competition were both celebrating their 25th year in the NRL when they met at Mt. Smart Stadium on Saturday night, mirroring the Sharks-Panthers game the same round, where both teams were celebrating their 52nd year in the NRL. Both teams were coming off pretty close losses – the Cowboys by a converted try to Melbourne in Townsville, the Warriors by a try to Rabbitohs for the first NRL game on the Sunshine Coast – so it made sense that this was a low-scoring match, with only two tries put down apiece.
Jake Clifford made the kickoff, and Agnatius Paasi took the first hit-up, before Te Maire Martin cleaned up the first kick of the night from Chanel Harris-Tevita. Two minutes in, Clifford made the first error of the game, but the North Queensland defence rallied to recoup their momentum, slowing down the New Zealand play-the-ball, and forcing Issac Luke to kick over the sideline from within the Warriors’ forty to get his men a bit of breathing-space during these critical opening moments.
New Zealand responded with some equally staunch defence, culminating with a pack effort that drove Gavin Cooper four metres backwards on the third tackle, before Justin O’Neill leaked the first penalty of the game for holding down Roger Tuivasa-Sheck on the next set. It was to be the first of several key North Queensland decisions that were aimed at containing Roger the Dodger, although the Warriors didn’t do much with their additional field position on this particular set.
In part, that was because Agnatius Paasi lost the footy on the fourth tackle, but Chanel scooped it up, for what initially looked like it might be the start of a brilliant sequence of broken play, only for Adam Blair to continue Paasi’s clumsiness by coughing up the Steeden on the right side of the park. Nevertheless, Luke had been getting into gear this set, and continued on the next Warriors set, sending Lachlan Burr through the line up the middle of the field, for the first real tryscoring opportunity that either side had glimpsed so far.
Admittedly, the set ended with Gerard Beale knocking on Chanel’s first bomb, but the Warriors had still aceelerated to a level that the Cowboys hadn’t achieved yet, and so felt as if they had a good chance of scoring the first try over the next couple of minutes. No surprise, then, that Michael Morgan sought out the sideline at the end of the next set, as if hesitant to give RTS too much latitude under the high ball.Embed from Getty Images
Meanwhile, the Cows got a blow when John Asiata was taken into the tunnel for a suspected HIA, forcing Scott Bolton to come on earlier than expected for his first match back after suspenseion. Clifford was immediately pinged for a ball strip following the scrum feed, and the Warriors headed left, where Peta Hiku handled a very difficult pass from Chanel, but then lost the footy while fending off Kahu on the right wing.
Perhaps encouraged by this fumble, Morgan risked a bomb at the end of the next set, but RTS secured it without any trouble, galvanising his team into a fast start that tempted Josh McGuire into a second effort during his milestone match. With the penalties rising – three to nil – and all this field position, pressure was mounting for New Zealand to produce points, since it was only a matter of time before all their possession would work against them, and testify instead to the rigour of the North Queensland defence.
The last thing they needed was the bounce off Chanel’s next kick, which ricocheted off his boot at an oblique angle, and very nearly found RTS right on the chest, but instead tumbled to the ground, and seemed to actually circle around Hiku, before Martin gathered it up. The rhythm of the match seemed to shift at this point, with the Cows getting their first penalty – due to Maumalo being offside – and then the first dropout of the night, when a Morgan grubber trapped RTS in goal; the first time the New Zealand fullback had been defied by the North Queensland halfback’s boot.
Luke went long with the kick, and the Cowboys allowed the ball to bounce back to the halfway line, never really recovering their momentum as Matt Scott lost control of the Steeden on the third tackle, bringing this brief surge of field position to an abrupt end. Luke now tried to consolidate, aiming for a 40/20 on the fourth, but the angle was all wrong, and North Queensland got the ball back earlier than expecting, surging their way back up the park with a twelve-man attack after Bolton was momentarily downed in backplay.
This was the moment when the Cows should have scored, so when this set ended without event, the Warriors made the most of their next opportunity, producing a cascading sequence of runs and passes that culminated with Maumalo slamming the footy down in the left corner while resisting Justin O’Neill’s efforts to drag him over the sideline. Full credit has to go to Beale, too, for the try assist, although the Warriors remained only four ahead when Chanel sent the Steeden across the front of the posts from a difficult sideline angle.Embed from Getty Images
RTS responded with a superb linebreak, but followed just as quickly with his first handling error of the game, creating a self-defeating rhythm that laid the platform for a bit of individual brilliance from Jake Clifford. Finding himself with the football ten metres out from the line, Clifford dummied to the right, and then mimicked RTS and Ponga with a swivel and scoot around the defence, offloading at just the right time to catch Coen Hess at the end of a hard run that brought the Steeden over the line, while notching up his first try assist in the NRL in the process.
Kahu booted through the extras to put the Cowboys two points ahead, but the Warriors arguably got an even bigger setback when they had two tries called back in quick succession a couple of sets later. The first occurred when Martin lost the high ball, thanks in part to an amazing kick chase from Tohu Harris, resulting in what would have been the easiest four-pointer of Beale’s career if the Bunker replay hadn’t showed that a double knock-on had occurred during the contest with Martin.
Since Martin had knocked on first, the Warriors still got the football, and they made the most of it, with Kata smashing over on the right wing a second later. For a moment, it looked like the cult winger had made up for Beale’s disappointment in the most spectacular way, only for this try to also be called back due to an obstruction from Blair on Kahu. This double frustration may well have been the point at which the Warriors lost the game, not least because it ushered in a period of escalating North Queensland possession that culminated with one of their two critical penalty kicks.
These final ten minutes of the first stanza were the lowest point of the match for New Zealand, as a pair of errors from Maumalo and Kata gave way to a goal line dropout, and then a pair of errors from Fusitua and Tevaga, before an offside penalty from Blair set up Kahu to boot through a two-pointer right on the stroke of halftime, resulting in a scoreline of 4-8 as both teams headed to the Mount Smart sheds. When they returned, an opening mistake from Bunty Afoa suggested they might continue to spiral downwards, but a subsequent error from O’Neill and slow peel from Hess gradually rebalanced the game as the back forty minutes got going.
Burr and Bunty now made big runs, before RTS capitalised on Hess’ error with his second linebreak of the night. This time he followed it with a try, rather than an error of his own, showcasing some of his trademark footwork to dodge around Clifford, speed past Hess and utterly defy Martin as last line of defence. With Chanel also racking up his second try assist by sending RTS through the line, the Warriors suddenly seemed back in the game after their drab end to the first stanza, especially once the young five-eighth added the extras to put his team two ahead.Embed from Getty Images
A couple of sets later, Nathaniel Roache broke through the line, having just subbed on for Burr, and shifted the footy across to Fusitua, who made good metres on the left before sending it back for his inside men to straighten up the play. Spooked, Morgan conceded a slow peel at the most inopportune moment, giving the Warriors another set of six to dance around on the right edge before moving across to the left on the last tackle, where a Chanel kick ricocheted off the defence and gave the Cowboys one of the biggest letoffs of the night so far.
North Queensland didn’t get to breathe for long, though, as Maguire lost the footy into Blair on the third tackle, before Afoa got things rolling again with a big run on the second tackle. From there a turnaround pass from Chanel and an offload from Blair ramped up the pressure, and yet that pressure meant that the relief was even greater when RTS opted to run the ball on the last only to come up just short of the line. In the process, he compounded the good luck that the Cows had enjoyed at the end of the previous New Zealand set, swiveling the game their way once again.
Sure enough, they scored next time they had ball in hand, off RTS’ lowest moment of the match so far – an unforced error, as he bent down a little too casually to pick up a low kick from Morgan, not bending his knees quite enough to prevent the most egregious knock-on of the game. This was crunch time, and Morgan kicked on the first, skidding the Steeden through Chanel’s legs and timing the bounce perfectly to catch O’Neill on the chest, before the big second rower managed to scramble forward and avoid a double movement to put down the final try of the game.
Early on, Morgan had been unwilling to kick to RTS, but now he was confident enough to kick on the first tackle on the back of an RTS error – a good indicator of just how far the Cows had come since the opening minutes, but also the extent to which RTS’ stature had determined the shape and pacing of the match. Kahu now slotted through the extras and then a penalty goal five minutes later, before Morgan stamped his boot on the game with a field goal at the seventy-third minute to bring the final scoreline to 10-17.
This was possibly the most disappointing result of the season so far for the Warriors, then, who looked set for a comeback at the start of the second half, especially with Mount Smart rallying behind them. They’ll be looking for a better result when they travel to AAMI Park to take on the Storm next Thursday night, while the Cowboys will be keen for an even more secure win margin – and a steadier flow of tries – when they head south to ANZ Stadium to take on a Bulldogs outfit smarting under their loss to the Rabbitohs on Friday night.