The Bulldogs hosted the Cowboys for the first match of Round 2 for one of the strangest NRL games ever played – in a totally vacant ANZ Stadium, due to the escalation of the coronavirus pandemic throughout Sydney. Canterbury didn’t let in a single linebreak against the Eels last week, and started strong here as well, with Lachlan Lewis kicking through a 40/20 at the end of the very first set. Gavin Cooper held up Adam Elliott on the second play, then a trio of defenders held up Aiden Tolman in front of the posts, before Brandon Wakeham opted for an early kick, but sent it too far, gifting the Cows seven tackles for their first touch of the football.
Jason Taumalolo now made a bullocking run on the third tackle, and took a quick tap after Joe Stimson leaked the first penalty of the night with a slow peel. Four plays later, Jordan Maclean was held up beneath the posts, where Elliott made a one-on-one strip in goal to get the Bulldogs rolling again. Nick Meaney stepped into the frame, receiving a short pass from Stimson and making a terrific run up the left side of the park, where he dodged away from Esan Marsters before sending a cut-out pass across to Lewis, who slammed over with Coen Hess on his back for the first try, putting Canterbury six points ahead once Wakeham added the extras.
Lewis kicked early on the next set, and for a moment the footy seemed to defy Ben Hampton, only for the hot weather and fast surface to work in North Queensland’s favour, as their right winger watched the ball bounce over the dead line for another seven tackles. The Dogs survived when Meaney outlept Kyle Feldt under the high ball, but a big tackle from Josh McGuire forced Reimis Smith to cough up the footy on the very next play. Yet the Cows now oped for their most conservative set so far, as Valentine Holmes, Taumalolo and McGuire gradually shifted left, before the team centred the play for Michael Morgan to shoot through a pretty standard kick on the last.
Still, North Queensland got another shot at the end of their next set, when Dallin Watene Zelezniak knocked on the high ball under pressure from Feldt. This time the Cowboys were more enterprising, starting a right sweep early in the tackle count that ended with Morgan popping a beautiful pass across to Hess to trample over Lewis for their first four-pointer. Both teams now went set for set for a couple of minutes, until Jeremy Marshall-King was pinged for converging with Dylan Napa and Will Hopoate for a ball strip on Marsters. The Cows now had the scrum feed from just inside the twenty and capitalised immediately, scoring on the very first play.
Full credit goes to Jake Granville for sending the footy out to Scott Drinkwater, who then dummied out to the right, drew in the defence, and cruised between Smith and Stimson, neither of whom got a hand to him as he slammed the Steeden down for a brilliant individual try – and a real vindication for his tenure in the no. 6 jersey. This time Holmes added the extras, bringing North Queensland to a four point lead as the second quarter of the match approached, while the Dogs dug deep for one of their strongest defensive sets on the restart, including a big three-man effort on Maguire, only to suffer a decline over the next period in the match.Embed from Getty Images
A few minutes later, Morgan stepped up with one of the most inspired kicks of the night, securing a goal line dropout that the Cowboys used as the platform for their most consolidated play yet – a rapid left sweep on the last that started with Drinkwater, who shaped to kick, held up the defence, and then got the ball back out for Holmes to pop it across the chest of O’Neill for Hampton to slam past Christian Crichton in the corner. With Holmes booting through another conversion, the Cows were ten ahead, while things went from bad to worse for the Bulldogs, as DWZ lost the footy clean a set later, before taking out his frustration with a tackle on Feldt that sent him to the bin.
The Cows started to wane a bit during this period, with Francis Molo and Granville making successive slow peels. Six minutes out from the end, North Queensland had to work the footy out from their own twenty for the first time in a while, but the Bulldogs’ big men were a big lackluster next time they had ball in hand, culminating with Renouf To’omaga misreading a pass from Lewis, allowing it to bounce off his shoulder and onto the ground. By contrast, Justin O’Neill made big metres out of the ensuing scrum, while Taumalolo won the battle of the big men on the fourth, passing to Molo, and then receiving an offload from Molo, to crash through Hopoate for the next four points, playing more like a five-eighth than a forward.
Taumalolo had already made fifteen runs in the first half – the only player in the whole game to make double figures in his run metres. Holmes now put the ball through the posts once more to bring the Cowboys to a 22-6 lead, with a whole minute left before DWZ returned from the sideline. The last note of the first half was Holmes collecting a spiraling bomb from Lewis with no trouble, in what had been a bad forty minutes of football for the Bulldogs, especially following their staunch defence against Parramatta the week before. You had to wonder whether the Cowboys were capitalizing on the lack of vocal Canterbury supporters, since this was starting to seem like a North Queensland home fixture.
However, four minutes into the second stanza, Marsters gave the Dogs their next chance, kicking the footy forward in the play-the-ball without any clear effort to recover it. Three tackles later, Elliot sent To’omaga through the line on the right edge, giving the big second-rower a chance to make up for his earlier handling error. He made the most of it too, catching the defence napping as he slammed past Cooper to crash over untouched for his first try in the NRL. For a moment, the Dogs seemed to be consolidating, with Dean Britt chasing down, trapping and recovering a dangerous Morgan grubber at the fifty metre mark, only for Wakeham to cough up the footy a few tackles later.
This would have been a great time for the Cows to come back, but Hopoate came up with the high ball a moment later, resisting one of the biggest North Queensland defensive efforts so far to remain in the field of play. Canterbury hadn’t been significantly better in the second half, but they had been stauncher in defence, and got a bit of breathing-space when Taumalolo left the field with 109 metres from 19 runs, although they also took a hit when Lewis joined him on the sideline. Morgan made up for Taumaolo’s absence with another great kick, which he booted from deep within his own thirty into the right corner, where DWZ tried to bring it back into play but was held up by a mammoth combined effort from Feldt and Hess.Embed from Getty Images
The Cows now headed rapidly to the right, where Holmes spilled the ball, but his team got a letoff when Josh Jackson was pinged for breaking early from the scrum. When Elliott held down Maclean on the first play, North Queensland elected to take the two, bringing them to a converted try lead as Holmes booted the ball through the posts. Maclean took the first hit-up on the restart, and Reece Robson made his best carry on the third, laying the platform for another great kick from Morgan – a shorter bomb that Meaney knocked on, getting the visitors another set from the ten metre line. This was crunch time for the Dogs, as Maclean was only just held up under the posts, before Hess slammed over the line on the right edge.
Cometh the hour cometh the man, and Jake Averillo now made his NRL debut in the most spectacular way, marking his first involvement with a trysaving tackle that forced Hess to resort to a double movement to get the ball over the line. It remained a twelve point game, then, as the Cowboys launched an unsuccessful captain’s challenge in an attempt to reverse a knock-on from Holmes, and the Bulldogs launched a successful captain’s challenge, to confirm a ball strip from Robson. The big men started strong after this second call, as Napa and Elliott made barnstorming runs at the line, only for Napa to collect a forward pass from JMK and then spill it under pressure from McGuire.
As the last ten minutes of the match got underway, the Dogs searched in vain for a wain to score, from a great long run up the right edge on the first play from Hopoate, to a deft offload from Hoppa to Elliott on the next set. Eight minutes out from the siren, Taumalolo added another fifty metres to his run tally, breaking through the line off an error from Raymond Faitala-Mariner, who had just subbed onto the park, and making his way to the Bulldogs’ twenty. By the end of the match, Taumalolo would have run for over 340 metres, in one of his very best games to date, cementing him as the leader and best man on the park tonight.
Luckily for the Bulldogs Wakeham brought down J.T. before he could score. Two tackles later, Robson got across the line, but dropped the ball – a big letoff for Canterbury, who still had just enough time to come away with a win if they could consolidate now. In the low point of their season so far, though, JMK made a mistake straight out of the scrum, allowing the Cowboys to get stuck in again immediately. They got an extra tackle when Crichton knocked the ball out of Holmes’ hands on the first play, but Britt regathered the footy from Robson on the next tackle, before RFM made big metres on the second play, tempting a dangerous tackle from McGuire.
This was probably the last chance for the Bulldogs if they wanted to win, so they chose to tap and go when Robson leaked a penalty in front of the posts, only for RFM to make his second handling error of the match a tackle later. Canterbury responded with their second captain’s challenge of the night – and this time they were unsuccessful in their attempt to get Taumalolo pinged for a strip on Faitala-Mariner, although the replay showed that it was a pretty close call. To make matters worse, the Cows got a penalty on the next tackle – a hand in the ruck from JMK – but Meaney caught the next kick on the full in goal, getting his men seven tackles for the last minute of the match.Embed from Getty Images
Averillo now compounded his trysaver with a try assist, booting through a great ball to the right corner, where Holmes tried to kick it into touch, but didn’t finish the job, leaving the play open for Crichton to scoot in and slam it down ten seconds out from the siren. The Cows still got the competition points, but in the end this wasn’t such a terrible scoreline for the Dogs, even if Wakeham missed the final kick. Still, they’ll be raring to prove that they can be genuine top eight contenders when they meet the Wests Tigers next weekend, while the Cowboys have bounced back from a disappointing home loss last Friday, and will be keen for a win at their new stadium when they host Parramatta next weekend.