ROUND 7: North Queensland Cowboys v. Newcastle Knights (QCB Stadium, 27/6/20)
Several thousand spectators were allowed in QCB Stadium on Saturday afternoon – good motivation for the Cowboys, who needed a win after conceding so many points to the Tigers last weekend, especially since their next six matches are all against top eight teams. Day matches are rarely held in Townsville, and the division of shade and sun was pretty sharp, leading Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to cough up Mitchell Pearce’s kick in his first stint substituting for Valentine Holmes, losing the ball backwards and then knocking on as he tried to recover it. The Knights swept left on the third play, where Lachlan Fitzgibbon took the North Queensland defenders right to the line, only for Gehamat Shibasaki to put down the football a moment later – the first of three successive errors from the Newcastle no. 4 that would eventually shift the momentum back in North Queensland’s favour. Nevertheless, the Knights got the first restart next time they had ball in hand, and continued to build for now, as Sione Mata’utia poked his nose through the line and almost sent Enari Tuala through, before the visitors got their second six again call thirty metres out.
Daniel Saifiti made a big run into Jordan Maclean on the third play, and Fitzgibbon came even closer to crossing over, before Andrew McCullough barged over in exactly the same place, where the Hammer made up for his opening ball loss by holding the ball off the ground here. Moments later, the Cowboys got their first boost in field position when Shibasaki lost the ball again, this time in the Knights’ thirty, but it initially looked like a dead end when Reece Robson put down the ball a play later. Yet a third loose carry from Shibasaki finally broke Newcastle’s momentum, as the Cows recovered the footy and headed left, where Justin O’Neill culminated a sequence of silky passes to circle around and score beside the posts. Despite only enjoying 34% of possession, North Queensland were six ahead after Kyle Feldt booted through the extras, swiveling the Steeden around the left upright as the shadows continued to spread across QCB Stadium. Full credit has to go to Robson, too, who made up for his earlier error with a superb cut-out pass from dummy half to set up the left edge raid in the first place.Embed from Getty Images
The Cowboys got their first restart a minute later, and it was compounded by McCullough giving away a penalty for not being square at marker. Maclean took a big carry on the first play, while Esan Marsters grubbered to the left on the last, getting the Cows the first dropout when Tuala was forced to pop it into touch. All of a sudden, North Queensland had risen to 49% possession, and they continued to build here, as the Hammer made a big run on the right, and Josh McGuire drew in three defenders in the middle of the field, where he tempted some crowding from McCullough – the next Knight to concede successive errors – setting up Feldt to slot the first penalty kick of the game through the posts. The Cows now executed a series of rapid play-the-balls before Jake Clifford drilled the Steeden over the sideline, getting his men a bit of breathing-space before Newcastle started their next attacking sequence. This time, Tabuai-Fidow was great collecting Pearce’s high ball in the sun, and even better at the end of the set, when he received the Steeden off a linebreak from Robson down the middle of the park, tumbling over the chalk for his first NRL try.
North Queensland showed no signs of slowing down after Feldt added the extras, with Jason Taumalolo once again taking the first hit-up, and Clifford sending the ball over the sideline again too, as Newcastle’s opening surge of field position receded to a distant memory. The Knights got a much-needed restarted next time they had possession, but it ended abruptly when Kalyn Ponga’s kick ricocheted off the defence and straight into Taumalolo, who found himself starting another set, but this time from the Cowboys’ forty. By this point, North Queensland were almost settling into a training run, repeating the same formations over and over – and history repeated itself once again when Clifford now broke through the line for a second time. This time, though, he went all the way himself, sliding past Pearce for a distended twist-and-spin that saw him maintain just enough control of the Steeden, after Mann got a hand to it, to ground it cleanly in goal, setting up Feldt for another seamless conversion. After totally dominating the first few minutes, Newcastle were now twenty behind without a point on the board, meaning they needed a couple of really big plays – and at least one or two tries before halftime – to get their mojo back.Embed from Getty Images
Instead, they deteriorated into one of their worst performances this year – and a stark contrast to their inspiring performance against the Broncos last week. First, Shibasaki was dragged into goal for the next North Queensland dropout, and then Daniel Saifiti simply dropped a short ball from Mitchell Pearce. The Cows weren’t without error – a fluid left play ended with Tom Opacic opting for a one-handed pass but instead sending the Steeden across the sideline – but they still had the last word when Feldt collected a high ball from Clifford to slam down another try a minute out from the break. Feldt had to contend with Lee in the corner, but didn’t have to outleap the huge Newcastle winger, instead getting beneath him, timing the catch better, and perhaps squinting more effectively into the sun, before converting his own try to bring the Cows to a staggering 26-0 lead as they headed into the sheds. Nevertheless, the Knights bounced back quickly, drawing on Adam O’Brien’s halftime blasting to score two minutes in, when Fitzgibbon broke through the line and shifted the footy across to Tex Hoy to put it down in the last patch of sunshine on the North Queensland line.
The Cowboys came back just as quickly, recovering their 26-point lead off a rare error from Jacob Saifiti, as Opacic hit the turf under a tackle from Tuala, but offloaded up to Hess, who caught the footy and popped it back down to score – an elegant, arcing passage of play that was redolent of Manu and JWH’s beautiful combination against the Dragons the night before. Feldt conceded the next penalty by stripping the ball after an AFL-esque catch in the air from Ponga, and the Knights got a restart soon after, but Herman Ese’ese threw the footy to nobody on the first tackle, and North Queensland got rolling once again, getting a restart of their own a moment later. In fact, this was one of the densest periods for six again calls in Round 7 so far, culminating with two successive restarts for the Knights, who scored off the second, thanks to two deft plays from Ponga – a kick to the left corner, where Clifford played at the footy to gift the Knights a fresh set, and then a superb catch-and-pass to the right edge, where Hymel Hunt bundled the footy into his chest and rolled over the line, getting the tip to ground just before his right foot slammed into touch.Embed from Getty Images
Newcastle had narrowed the scoreline for the second time, but the Cowboys still had a 22-point lead after Ponga missed a sideline conversion, while Pearce sent the footy out on the full a set later, as his men struggled to hold onto their tentative surge of momentum. They got a booster a set later, when David Klemmer made a big carry up the centre of the park, and Hess was penalised for a late tackle on Mann, and Ese’ese consolidated their field position with a barging run to the left edge, before Pearce ran the footy on the third and offloaded to Mann, who popped it across for Ponga to be cleaned up on the right. This was good defence from the Cowboys, but the Knights had also accelerated pretty dramatically here, so it felt right when Mann twisted and spun through the line on the next play, bringing the Knights to three tries in eight minutes. Two frustrated tries from Marsters now followed – the first called back for an obstruction from Robson, and the second denied when a Scott Drinkwater kick didn’t quite bounce right in goal for the ex-Tiger – but the Cows still had a pretty intimidating lead when the last ten minutes arrived, as Newcastle started to flag.
Eleven minutes out, Daniel Saifiti had broken through the line, but put down the football – a summary of Newcastle’s game, especially when they wasted their Captain’s Challenge in an attempt to have the call reversed as an illegal strip. Klemmer was the next Knight to lose the ball just as his team were arriving at the line – and to make matters worse this would have been the right time for a Challenge, since the replay showed that Drinkwater had clearly played at the footy when Klemmer was stretching out his arm for an offload. Taumalolo made his best run of the afternoon on the next set, carrying three Newcastle defenders with him as he got down on one knee, and then got up again for even more post-contact metres. Ponga broke through the line a set later, but he slipped on the ground within the twenty, and by the time Pearce got to his final kick O’Neill was ready, collecting the footy on the fill and then running the length of the park to put down the next North Queensland ball, as the Hammer leaped onto his back in celebration. Even though the try was called back, this was a big final flex from the Cowboys, so it was surprising when Shibasaki scored a minute later.Embed from Getty Images
This sequence was more like the Knights we’ve seen so far in 2020 – clean, crisp and clinical, as Fitzgibbon drove deep into the North Queensland line, and popped a two-handed offload back to his centre to dash over in the left corner to score. With Ponga missing another conversion, Newcastle had to score two converted tries in the last five minutes to at least have a shot at golden point, but they couldn’t do much with the end of their next set, despite getting a six again call early in the tackle count. They got their last chance with two minutes on the clock, but were denied a penalty try in the final minute, when Tuala scooped up a Ponga kick and scooped it back to his fullback, who did look like he would have had a good chance of scoring if Drinkwater hadn’t launched onto his back. Drinkwater might have been sent to the bin, but the Knights had lost their last shot at a win, so they’ll be looking to come back big when they meet Manly next week at Central Coast Stadium. On the other side of the Steeden, this has been a landslide of points for North Queensland over the last fortnight, so they’ll be looking for another massive try tally when they play Parra on Friday.
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