The Cowboys had twice as many losses as they had wins when they hosted the Panthers on Friday night, for the penultimate match at 1300SMILES Stadium. Next week will be a historic match against the Bulldogs, but the news of Matt Scott’s stroke gave this home game a different kind of emotional quality, as the players trotted out onto the field in bright pink for Women in League round. Meanwhile, the Panthers had only won one of their last four after seven straight wins seemed to guarantee them a pretty decent finals berth, and were raring for a good win here.
Despite a few errors, both teams went set for set for the first six minutes, until James Maloney tried to steady the troops with a kick over the sideline, but sent the football out on the full instead. Michael Morgan ended the next set with a crossfield kick that Gavin Cooper knocked back and Dean Whare collected, although not before Brian To’o had knocked it on. The Cows got the scrum feed ten metres out from the line, and opted for a right sweep that culminated with a superb offload from Tom Opacic – a one-handed pass right on the ground – that sent Kyle Feldt over to score.
Shane Wright had almost crashed over twice on the right, so with this first try North Queensland seemed to take control of the game, as Jordan Kahu’s conversion put them six points ahead. John Asiata was the next to kick for the sideline, and the next to be penalised for it, as the touch judges incorrectly called that the Steeden had sailed out on the full, gifting the Panther a bonus twenty metres, before a pair of kicks from Maloney and Brett Naden trapped Scott Drinkwater in goal for the first dropout of the night.
Penrith now got their first really big attacking opportunity, only for James Fisher-Harris to lose the footy on the second tackle under pressure from Jake Granville. The game now returned to the even pace of the first five minutes, with both sides completing most of their sets and the two halves pairings opting for big bombs, until Opacic had a near-miss. Intercepting a loose Maloney pass on the wing with fifty metres stretching back behind him, he knocked on instead of storming down for a runaway try.
Gradually, North Queensland started to tire, as Opacic’s miss marked the beginning of a messy period for the home team. The low point was Scott Bolton trying to pass to the referee, before a big pack effort from the Cowboys failed to drag Dylan Edwards over the line. Feldt copped a head knock during the play, and the game was paused while his head was bandaged, giving the Panthers time to recover their breath. Once again, though, they squandered a good opportunity with an error on the second play, this time from Stephen Crichton in his second NRL game.Embed from Getty Images
The Panthers now got a near-miss, as a superb offload from JFH put Reagan Campbell-Gillard through the line in the middle of the field. The big prop tried to run straight over Drinkwater, but was brought to ground by a low tackle, before Nathan Cleary scooted up to ensure a relatively speedy play-the-ball. Still, Penrith had lost the rhythm of the set and a try went begging, as it all ended with Maloney kicking out on the full. The Cowboys didn’t do much with the seven tackle set, though, absorbing the anticlimax of the Panthers’ near-try rather than capitalizing on it.
A set later Morgan mirrored Maloney with an overlong kick, giving Penrith a shot at seven tackles. While they didn’t execute here, a flop from Reuben Cotter got them the field position they needed a set later for a right sweep that saw the footy move through Cleary and Edwards before Whare made a stellar catch and pass to Brian To’o. His trademark leap could have cost him the try after Asiata came in for a big tackle, but he pulled it off, putting Penrith on the board for the first time in the game.
The breeze didn’t favour Cleary, who missed the conversion, but it didn’t favour Feldt either, as he booted the restart out on the full as Bolton was taken from the sideline to the bench, after being injured a couple of plays before. The final note of this first act was a flashback, as Maloney followed Feldt by sending the footy out on the full a second time. Once more, the Cows responded with a stellar offload, as Kahu collected a Asiata grubber just inside the ten, bounced off the ground on his left hand, and sent the footy across with his right for Murray Taulagi to score his first NRL try.
Penrith came close to scoring two times during the first ten minutes of the second half – the first was called back after a knock-on from Cleary, the second after a questionable obstruction from Reagan Campbell-Gillard. Naden took out of some of the team’s mounting frustration with a high tackle on Feldt, who was already bandaged after his tackle on Edwards in the first act. Feldt burst up the right side in response, bouncing off a couple of tackles before another offload from Opacic saw the play shift to the left, where Drinkwater secured the Cows another dropout.
They got six again at the end of it, after Maloney played at an Asiata kick, and proceeded to put in one of their toughest sets of the night, with Jordan Maclean almost charging his way through the defence beneath the posts on the second tackle, and Gavin Cooper almost launching through on the left on the third. When a Drinkwater kick ricocheted off Maloney, however, Naden gathered it up and almost made it to the halfway line, where Penrith got a penalty and a fresh burst of field position, after an obstruction by Granville on Crichton during the play-the-ball.Embed from Getty Images
This was the fastest change of fortune in the game, and for a moment seemed like it might be the start of one of Penrith’s legendary comebacks. Yet the Cows reversed the momentum even more dramatically, after Naden knocked the high ball back over the dead ball line, getting North Queensland another seven tackle set. All they needed was a single run, as Opacic sped the footy up to the twenty, and popped it across to Feldt, who broke through the line and ran the rest of the film to slam down his second try of the night.
This was poetic justice for North Queensland after Naden’s hit on Feldt a couple of minutes before, but Penrith fired back pretty quickly, and in a pretty unexpected way. A few sets later, Isaah Yeoh caught a fairly standard Maloney kick and then chipped and chased it beneath the posts, where Taulagi was elbowed off the play, and Bolton was unable to secure it, leaving it open for the big Penrith lock to slam down another four points. This time, Cleary added the extras, narrowing the deficit to eight points once again.
Once again, too, it felt like we might have another Penrith comeback on our hands. To counter it, the Cowboys needed a gesture of assurance – and Drinkwater provided it a moment later, stretching out on the ground to catch a Maloney kick on the half-volley, risking a knock-on with just the clutch play that the Cows needed to shift up a gear for these critical final minutes. There was a brief hiccup when Opacic was taken off for an HIA, and replaced by Coen Hess, but Drinkwater built on his own momentum by breaking through the line, as Whare was pinged for holding back.
These two displays of strength from Drinkwater were a key moment in his consolidation at fullback, and steeled the Cows for the next couple of plays, which started with Jason Taumalolo muscling the footy up to the line, and ended with Granville popping a short ball across to J.T. for a one-on-one contest with James Tamou to the right of the posts. The big Cowboy forward and ex-Cowboy forward wrestled for a couple of minutes, as if passing the history of 1300SMILES back and forth between them, until Taumalolo finally prevailed, and put down the Steeden.
While Taumolo might not be fully recovered, this final try was a superb way to crown his return to the footy field. From the outset, he’d channelled Payne Haas’ superb performance against the Panthers the week before, and the result was the same here, as the Cows came away for the win, making next week’s match against the Bulldogs – and farewell to 1300SMILES – even more tantalising. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a real nadir for the Panthers, especially given another near-try in the final five minutes, so the mountain men will be looking for a torrent of points when they host Newcastle for the last game of the regular football season.