Two big stories came together when the Cowboys hosted the Bulldogs in Townsville on Thursday night for the first match of Round 24. As the last game to be played at 1300SMILES, this marked the end of the first great chapter in the Cowboys’ history, and a farewell to the venue that saw Johnathan Thurston evolve into an international superstar. Yet this was also a pivotal game in the Bulldogs’ unlikely scramble for the finals in 2019, the make-or-break moment for their current status as the game’s favourite underdogs.
The game started well for the Dogs, as an early Michael Morgan kick ricocheted off Corey Harawira-Naera, who curved around and caught the deflection on the full. Still, the Cowboys were the first to put points on the board, as Jordan Kahu sent through an early penalty goal after Kieran Foran was pinged for obstructing Gavin Cooper as he tried to prevent Will Hopoate ferrying the footy back in field. All in all, though, this was a bit of a letoff for Canterbury, since Foran could easily have been sent off for a professional foul.
The Dogs got the first dropout after a superb trio of offloads from Foran, Jackson and Hopoate saw Reimis Smith gain possession on the right side of the field, where he sliced the ball back inside at high speed, forcing Scott Drinkwater to put a hand on it before it bounced into touch. A couple of tackles into the restart, Canterbury chose to take the two and level the score following a slow peel from Jake Granville, as Nick Meaney booted his first kick through the posts from right in front.
Canterbury made their first error of the game soon after, as Corey Harawira-Naera overran his line, while Adam Elliott was too late into the pass to pull the ball back into his chest. You could tell that Elliott was frustrated at misreading his second rower’s speed, so it must have been cathartic for him to send Foran straight through the line on the next Bulldogs set. This almost produced the first try of the night, after Foran’s kick sat up perfectly for Dallin Watene Zelezniak, but the replay confirmed that the ex-Panther had – just – fumbled the footy into Kyle Feldt’s trysaving tackle.
A few sets later, Morgan tried to break the deadlock by storming over a low tackle from Jeremy Marshall-King eight metres out from the line, reaching out a hand in search of the Cowboys’ first try. The tackle was too good, though, especially when Harawira-Naera came in on top, causing Morgan to lose control of the Steeden, which was about twenty centimetres too short anyway. While JMK followed up with the first 40-20 of the game, the extra field position came to nothing after Foran slipped on the last in the face of John Asiata.Embed from Getty Images
Despite a few big plays, neither team managed to score a try before the half time siren, as Morgan, in particular, started to show the strain of being North Queensland’s only really viable kicker. For a moment, the Cows seemed to be shaping for a field goal on their last set, but they opted for a kick to the left instead, where an error from Jayden Okunbor initially seemed to promise them three more seconds, only for a slow scrum pack to cost them a final chance points in this first act.
The next quarter of the game was largely driven by errors and penalties, starting with Peter Holo tackling Lachlan Lewis’ legs at the end of an early set. Despite the low scoring – or because of it – the Dogs opted to take the two, as Meaney booted another penalty goal through the posts. Over the next couple of minutes, the game got even deeper into the groove of the first stanza, as both teams went set for set, searching for the circuit-breaker as the North Queensland crowd grew restless.
It came with an error from the Dogs – an offload from Raymond Faitala-Mariner, right on the Cowboys’ line, with nobody around to clean it up. The Cows responded by shifting the footy through Morgan, Opacic and finally Feldt, who caught Meaney too far in field to slam down the first four points of the nights. It was a no-frills try, but felt momentous given how long both teams had waited to arrive at this moment, and as Kahu added the extras the Cows seemed to have regained control of the game.
Yet it didn’t take long for the Bulldogs to answer with a right sweep of their own. Once again, the key ingredient was an error, this time a high tackle from Francis Molo on Aiden Tolman, followed by a mistake from Michael Morgan. Now the footy moved through Foran, Meaney, Hoppa and Okunbor, bringing in Asiata much as Meaney had been brought in a couple of minutes before. If anything, it was even more no frills than North Queensland’s effort – like a training drill – locking up the game at 8-8 after Meaney hooked the conversion attempt away from the uprights.
The Cowboys nearly scored a try after a big run from Taumalolo up the middle of the park set up Morgan to shift the footy inside to Drinkwater, who kicked for the right corner. Yet the bounce didn’t quite work for Feldt, who arrived there in time, but saw the Steeden heading over the sideline before he could safely get a hand it. Still rolling, the Cows went from side to side on the next set, but the Dogs cleaned them up on both edges, with Opacic bringing down Elliott on the right, and Okunbor wrapping things up on the left.Embed from Getty Images
Moments later, the hosts got their last interchange at 1300SMILES – Bolton for Molo – with seventeen on the clock, as the prospect of a second try started to seem as unlikely as the first. The Cows got a repeat set at the seventy minute mark, and seemed set to score with any tackle, or at least set themselves up for a field position, but all the rhythm collapsed when Harawira-Naera scooped up the footy after there was nobody at marker to collect it for North Queensland.
The Cows needed a gutsy clutch play, and Murray Taulangi provided it, sending through a risky grubber before chasing down Hopoate in goal for a dropout with four minutes to go. Jordan Maclean took the first run before sending it across to Morgan on his outside, before some deft action on the left edge set up Kahu to boot through the fifth field goal of his career. With Meaney kicking out on the full, the Cowboys felt that little bit more secure, although a short putdown by Granville meant that the Dogs had ninety seconds to attempt to score another four points.
Their chances shrunk when Okunbor was driven back in goal on the first tackle, and as the Cowboys drew out their dropout as much as possible, a party atmosphere settled over 1300SMILES Stadium – a cathartic and contagious joy that peaked when Shane Wright put down a final try. The ground hasn’t felt like this since Thurston was at his prime, so it was an apt farewell to the ground that Thurston made his own.
The Dogs won the first game at 1300SMILES, and the Cowboys won the last, bringing North Queensland full circle as they start a new period in their career, and a new sense of scale and scope with their new stadium. As Bolton sent the final conversion at this most grassroots of NRL grounds straight through the posts, the crowd went wild, spilling out of their seats for a night that has gone directly into the history books as an example of the very best that the game has to offer.