The Tigers continued their splendid home record against the Cowboys when they met at Campbelldown on Saturday night, putting down 34 unanswered points in the first half before North Queensland clawed back 20 in the second. Jason Taumalolo lost the ball on his first carry, in his first game as skipper, and the Tigers scored out of the scrum, with great runs from Luke Brooks and Harry Grant on the first and fourth, and Zane Musgrove’s first NRL try on the last.
This was the Tigers’ fastest try since 2016, as a sluggish response to Josh Reynolds’ assist opened up space for the ex-Rabbitoh to slam through Justin O’Neill, Scott Drinkwater and Coen Hess. Reynolds didn’t do so well on the restart, though, letting a big kick from Kyle Feldt slip straight through his open arms, before an offside penalty from Moses Mbye got the Cows their first big attacking opportunity of the night, and a Drinkwater kick yielded the first dropout when Adam Doueihi had to knock it dead.
The visitors got six again at the end of the set, but the Tigers stayed strong, cleaning up a wing run from Feldt on the second, holding up Drinkwater on the fifth beneath the posts, and then containing Josh McGuire in the same spot on the last. They built on that defensive energy to slide into their first restart a moment later, and recovered their rhythm immediately by scoring on the fourth tackle of this set, when Reynolds ran deep into the defensive line to give Doueihi space for a delayed pass to Joey Leilua.
Joey now scored in much the same place as Musgrove, but from longer range, bumping off Drinkwater and tumbling over Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to put the Tigers at double digits with only nine minutes on the clock. Full credit too for Brooks, who had opted to run the ball early in the set – he’d made three big runs in seven minutes – and to Mbye, who would have a good night with the boot, slotting through a beautiful sideline conversion here to make it 12-0.
The Cowboys had failed to score in three successive sets, and the Tigers had scored on both of their big sets, so it didn’t feel too urgent when North Queensland got another restart on their next carry – or even when Joey Leilua was pinged for a ball strip late in the subsequent tackle count. Sure enough, David Nofoaluma intercepted a harbour bridge ball from the Hammer out to the wing, getting the Tigers rolling into their next tryscoring sequence.
They didn’t score on this next set, but used a good offload from Doueihi to build momentum for the set after. Doueihi collected Drinkwater’s bomb, Nofa took the carry, and everything seemed to fall apart when a bad Grant kick ricocheted off Reece Robson on the third. Nevertheless, Mbye collected a long ball from Nofa, surged up the left edge, dummied to Luciano Leilua on his outside, broke through the line and finally shifted it across for Luke Brooks to cross over untouched.
This culminated the best opening quarter of Wests Tigers football in a long time, especially when Mbye added the extras to make it 18-0. Once again, though, they didn’t get to a full restart, as Musgrove put down the ball after a big collision with Mitch Dunn on the third. North Queensland got another restart, but the black and orange wall stayed strong, holding up a crash play from Francis Molo on the second, and then an attempted twist-and-spin from McGuire on the fourth.
The Cowboys now came up with their worst last play option all year – and the worst in a series of poor passes from Robson in this particular game, leaving Drinkwater no option but to field the ball soccer-style, reaching out his left boot to tap it back into the defence. The tries kept coming for the home team, as a set restart a minute later opened up space for Josh Aloiai to collect a short ball from Grant and effectively crash over untouched, dancing away from a Drinkwater finger to score beside the posts.
The Tigers were now in peak flow, getting their next catalyst with a successful Captain’s Challenge that proved a supposed knock-on from Mbye had actually been an error for Jake Clifford. They responded with some of their silkiest ball handling of the season, culminating with a long, low pass from Mbye that Feldt barely tried to contain before Robert Jennings collected it for the fifth try of the night.
Jennings was taken off for a hamstring injury as soon as he got up, and Alex Twal had gone off early for Sam McIntyre a moment before, but this was all that had gone wrong for the Tigers in this stellar opening half of footy, as Mbye slotted through his fifth successive conversion to make it 30 points in 31 minutes. They still had one more try in them, too – a try that seemed to gather the best of these first five into one superb display of confidence just before the break.
It started with Nofoaluma, who received the Steeden about a third of the way up the field, looked for a pass, broke through the middle, bumped off Feldt, and followed with a quick play-the-ball for Reynolds to boot a high one out to the left wing. Esan Marsters briefly took his eye off the footy as it bounced half a metre from the sideline and ricocheted off Michael Chee Kam’s boot and back in goal, where another miss from Feldt left space for Mbye to soar in and score with both hands.
Mbye missed his first conversion of the night, but the Tigers had still equaled their record halftime score, so you had to wonder whether this would turn into their revenge for the Cowboys’ record-breaking 64-6 win over them at 1300SMILES in August 2014. Instead, in classic Tigers’ fashion, this turned into a game of two halves, as North Queensland rallied with 20 unanswered points in the second stanza, with the exception of a lone penalty kick for the home team.
That said, it still took another twelve minutes for the Cowboys to translate their territorial advantage – close to 60% – onto the scoreboard, since the Tigers were pretty strong in defence when they returned from the sheds. Taumalolo got away the best offload of the night six minutes in, but Brooks still made his best tackle a play later, while Nofoaluma defused a kick from Drinkwater to Molo, reaching up to tap it back before Reynolds ran in to bat it over the sideline.
They survived the dropout, they survived an offside penalty when Grant charged down a Drinkwater kick, they survived a ball strip from Doueihi on Taumalolo beneath the posts, and they survived a crossover from Connelly Lemuelu, who put his left boot on the sideline instead of scoring on debut. With restarts off ruck errors from Gavin Cooper and Peter Hola, they probably could have resumed their first half momentum if they’d scored now, despite lagging in attack since returning from the break.
Instead, Drinkwater scored with the only real option left for the Cowboys – an intercept try – collecting a wayward pass from Reynolds and decelerating by the thirty, so taken aback was the Wests Tigers defence by this sudden shift in pace. Feldt booted through his only conversion of the night – the first of twelve successive points he’d score over the next five minutes, as he got his men rolling again in a sublimely compressed sequence before heading back to the dressing room for an HIA.
First, he leaped up above Mbye to collect a Clifford kick on the restart, arcing down to score with the grace and dexterity North Queensland needed to continue capitalizing on Drinkwater’s flukier try. The next points also came off a combination between these three, but a bit further back in the play, as Feldt and Mbye surged in on a midfield Clifford kick, with the Tigers captain knocking it over the sideline to get the Cows a scrum from the ten.
This was the best North Queensland sequence of the night – a perfect fusion of speed and strength that started with a one-handed, no-look flick pass from Marsters to open up just enough space for Feldt on the left edge. The big winger still had to work for it though, with a left hand fend on Brooks that gave him just enough time to land on his left side and keep the footy secure enough under his right to score, despite Grant’s boot making contact with the leather as all three players rolled into touch.
Feldt was too concussed to attempt the conversion, and Clifford wouldn’t sink any more from the sideline, but he did slot two through from right in front, since Grant’s contact was deemed sufficient to make this an eight point try. Mbye restored the Tigers’ twenty point lead with a penalty kick three minutes later, off an Esan Marsters escort, but the Cowboys still had the last word, even if Feldt’s absence from the field meant they had to wait a bit longer to put down their next and final try.
They came close ten minutes out, with two potential Drinkwater assists straight out of scrums, the first of which came off a loose carry from Grant that the Tigers wasted their second Captain’s Challenge trying to contest. Drinkwater kicked to the left, where the Hammer would have scored if Doueihi hadn’t stormed in to pop it over the sideline. Unfazed, Drinkwater headed right as soon as the next scrum broke, but this time with the widest cut-out pass of the night to Ben Hampton.
This had been an amazing showcase of Drinkwater’s skills with both hands and feett, but Mbye mirrored Doueihi’s defensive effort on the Hammer, coming in hard to force Hampton’s foot onto the right sideline – a stark reminder of what Feldt might have done with this play if he’d still been on the park.
It felt right that an ex-Tiger put down the last four points, as Marsters managed a Clifford bounce better than both Mbye and Chee Kam to crash over the line four minutes out from the end. Feldt was back on the park, but missed the conversion, making it a sixteen-point game, and leaving both teams with a point to prove when they take on the Knights and Bulldogs respectively next week – the Cows that they can avoid four consecutive losses, the Tigers that they can score after the 33rd minute.