The Bulldogs were coming off a loss to the Rabbitohs, and the Cowboys off a win to the Warriors, when they met on Friday night for North Queensland’s first visit to ANZ Stadium since 2017. After playing at Mt. Smart, it had been a big two weeks of travel for the Cows, but they still managed to take control of the first part of the match, keeping the Dogs tryless until the last five minutes before the break, in one of the most visceral arm-wrestles of Round 7.
The home team took a hit when Rhyse Martin was taken off the field five minutes after a head collision with Justin O’Neill. Still, the Dogs got a bit of an opening surge, as Nick Meaney collected the high ball, and was confident enough to pass it straight to Corey Harawira-Naera right on the Canterbury line. The ex-Panther managed to milk an offside penalty from Jake Granville, giving Kerrod Holland the field position he needed to break through the line before shifting the footy across to Jayden Okunbur.
At first, it looked as if Okunbur had crossed over in the left corner, but the try was called back due to a forward pass from Holland. It was a frustrating moment for the Dogs, since the pass hadn’t really looked forward in either real time or slow motion. It was also a disappointing opening for Okunbur, who had broken through the line in the opening minutes, but was unable to get a critical offload away shortly after that.
Okunbur was also the casualty of the Cowboys’ first try, which came twelve minutes in, when they got their first dropout, after a kick from Jake Clifford forced Lachlan Lewis to punch the football into touch. Two tackles into the next set, Michael Morgan sent a crossfield kick across to the right corner, where Justin O’Neill caught it on the full, and didn’t even seem to register Okunbur, as he slid past him to put down the first four points of the game.
With Jordan Kahu missing the conversion, the Cowboys were only four points ahead. Yet that was a significant lead in a low-scoring game, as both teams now moved the football back and forth for a couple of minutes, before an offside penalty from Harawira-Naera gave North Queensland a bit of a boost. While Okunbur managed to collect the footy, bring it back into the field of play, and take a quick tap, he dropped it as he was going for the first pass, under some big pressure from Clifford.Embed from Getty Images
The Cows now got the scrum feed, and then took the two after a hand in the ruck from Josh Jackson. All things considered, though, the Bulldogs were lucky to be only six points behind at this stage. In fact, electing to take the two felt like a concession from North Queensland, as did Morgan kicking the footy out on the full at the end of their next set. Nevertheless, Morgan made up for it by spearheading some splendid cover defence on the following set to prevent Reimis Smith crossing over, on the back of a superb cut-out pass from Jack Cogger.
Clifford now steadied the ship by sending the Steeden over the sideline, giving his men some time to regroup before the Cowboys got stuck in again. The Bulldogs wouldn’t get a chance to score until the final five minutes, when Granville lost the ball on the last tackle under pressure from Ofahiki Ogden. The big prop followed up with an offload to Martin on the second tackle, and Martin responded with a harbor bridge pass across to Okunbur, who slammed the football down with O’Neill on his back.
No player had personified the Bulldogs – both their frustration and their determination – over the first forty minutes quite like Okunbur, so it felt like a turning-point to see him put down four points here. The opening stanza had now been bookended by his almost-try, following Holland’s forward pass, and his successful try, putting the Bulldogs ahead now that Martin had passed his HIA, and was available to slot the conversion through the posts.
During the first ten minutes of the second half, the game settled back into the arm-wrestle of the first half, as both sides moved the football up and down the park, looking for opportunities to score. One team had to change the direction and shape of the game, and Meaney did that in the most dramatic and literal way at the fifty-first minute, collecting the footy as part of Canterbury right edge sweep, only to flick it back to Harawira-Naera to storm up into the middle third of the field.
The change in direction took the Cowboys utterly by surprise, as Harawira-Naera swiveled around Gavin Cooper, fended off Matt Scott and came to ground beneath Te Maire Martin, with Rhyse Martin adding the extras once again to put the Bulldogs a converted try ahead. Meanwhile, Jackson had come on for Ogden, and Danny Fualalo for Chris Smith, giving the Dogs some fresh energy just as they were starting to peak, while Reimis Smith showed some quick thinking on the restart to reach a foot over the sideline as he collected a Clifford kick that was heading out on the full.Embed from Getty Images
In other words, the Dogs had claimed the start of the second half much as the Cows had claimed the start of the first half, meaning that the onus was now on North Queensland to level the score. Unfortunately for away fans, Canterbury just got better from here, putting down the next two tries, converting them both, and only allowing the Cowboys to get in six more points before the final siren rang out.
Both of these tries came off errors, the first of which was a dropped ball from Mclean that set up Jackson to bookend one of the best passages of play all night. Finding himself with the footy in the middle of the field, Jackson sent it across to Lewis, who responded with a wide ball that allowed Okunbur to break through the line on the left edge, before he got it across to Holland. From there, Holland dummied and then took the tackle, relying on a quick play-the-ball to continue the Bulldogs’ momentum.
It was a wise decision, allowing Jackson to finish the play by slamming through a squad of North Queensland jerseys to score right on the line. As luck would have it, there was a clear sightline through Coen Hess’ legs that showed the very moment at which Jackson got the Steeden to ground for his first try of 2019 – a captain’s try if there ever was one, and arguably the key moment of consolidation for the Bulldogs over this second stanza, especially once Martin sailed through yet another two points.
The Cows got their next chance following a frustrated 40/20 attempt from Lewis, but they came undone on their final tackle, when Morgan’s kick ricocheted off the defence, and O’Neill knocked on at the end of a scrambling attempt by multiple players to clean up the football. Despite that scramble, it initially looked as if this might be a call of six again for North Queensland, so the away team were taken by surprise when Adam Elliott muscled his way into the line and popped a short ball across to Harawira-Naera to break through.
Soaring over the chalk untouched, the big second-rower seemed to put the Bulldogs beyond all doubt for the win. That made it even more surprising when Ben Hampton scored on the next Cowboys set, off a catch-and-pass from Kahu, but this turned out to be a glitch, as the Dogs doubled down on their defence over the final quarter to maintain their 24-12 scoreline, and rack up their second win of the year after beating the Tigers at Campbelltown Stadium in Round 3.Embed from Getty Images
Even better, this was a clean, clinical, simple scoreline – six converted tries, four to the Dogs, and two to the Cowboys. Canterbury will be looking to consolidate further, then, when they travel to Brookvale to take on the Sea Eagles next week. Meanwhile, this was another disappointing loss in a pretty disappointing year for the Cowboys, who will be searching for more ways to acclimatize to the post-Thurston world when they host the Titans in Townsville for a Queensland derby on Friday night.