ROUND 11: North Queensland Cowboys v. Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles (QCB Stadium, 24/7/20)

The Cowboys had won six of their last eight games against Manly, although Manly had won their last two games in Townsville, when they met for the second game on Friday night. Mitch Dunn and Murray Taulagi were in the centres for North Queensland, replacing Esan Marsters and Connelly Lumuelu, who was out with a cork, while Jordan Maclean had also been ruled out 24 hours before kickoff with a calf complication.

On the other side of the Steeden, Moses Suli was cleared to play, despite his sternum issues last week, and Addin Fonua-Blake was back from suspension, pushing Taniela Paseka to the bench. The Sea Eagles had come away with a close four-point win over Parramatta the week before, so they were keen to continue flexing here – and that’s just what they did, coming away with a twelve-point lead that ended with a super duo of tries from the halves, testament to DCE’s leadership at all points of the park.

Neither team quite nailed the end of their opening sets, as Jake Clifford was forced to kick before the last and DCE was put under pressure getting his first left-boot bomb away to the right side of the field. Manly got the first penalty on their second set, thanks to an offside error from Francis Molo – a big concession from the Cowboys, who have only lost the penalty count twice in 2020. Curtin Sironen managed a deft offload to Marty Taupau, and the Sea Eagles got stuck in for the first close-range attack.

It paid dividends immediately, as Cade Cust threaded the needle between Clifford and Shane Wright to find goal, where Joel Thompson would have reprised his try from last week if Kyle Feldt hadn’t leaped up to tap the footy into touch with one hand. Thompson pivoted away awkwardly on his left leg, and the game paused while he got some medical attention, but he proved he was fine by dragging the footy into the left corner on the dropout, where he secured a set restart off a ruck error from Clifford.

Manly now really got into first gear, as Cust got away from Clifford and McGuire on the left edge, forcing Molo and Hammer to converge for an early trysaving combination. Levi continued his trajectory, and would have scored if he hadn’t slipped, leaving a pretty significant divot in his wake as Daly Cherry-Evans followed Cust by setting up a dropout, this time on the other side of the field, with a dangerous grubber that Justin O’Neill was forced to take into touch as a sea of Sea Eagles jerseys descended on him.

The Sea Eagles now had 73%, and 13 tackles in the opposition half – the Cowboys only had one – so they had to score here or else concede the momentum back to the home team. DCE and Cust resumed the rhythm after a brief lull in the middle of the set, and Sironen smashed over a tackle later, collecting a short ball from Elliott and bumping off four or five North Queensland defenders before twisting through Asi and the Hammer to put Manly six points ahead once Reuben Garrick added the conversion.

North Queensland hadn’t touched the footy in about five minutes, and they had to wait a bit longer when McGuire was pinged for a high hit on Taupau midway through the restart. They got their first big let-off when Moses Suli made the first error of the night, fumbling the footy at the end of a right sweep, before receiving their first chance within the Manly twenty when Garrick lost the footy into a big tackle from Jason Taumalolo, and Thompson conceded an offside penalty.

Taking the tap was the only choice here, as the Cowboys now reprised Manly’s previous surge on the left edge, but on the other side of the field, where Clifford broke through Jack Gosiewski, forcing a massive trysaver from Levi, and Taupau had to slam in to prevent Reece Robson crossing over in his second-rower’s path. For the third time, Clifford kicked early, and Jorge Taufua stepped up, collecting the footy on the full, right on the line, and burrowing his body around it to avoid being dragged back into touch.

Yet the Sea Eagles couldn’t take control of the game here, due to a combination of factors – Levi going down in backplay, Thompson being taken off the field for an HIA, DCE not getting to a great kick, Levi conceding an offside penalty when he returned to his feet, and Cust making a ruck error to give away six again a tackle later. It was worrying for the Cowboys, then, that they couldn’t put down a full set this time either, thanks to a great combo from Cust and Gosiewski to force the footy free from Wright.

Taufua was just as safe at the end of Clifford’s next kick, but now it was a high ball rather than a grubber, meaning the big winger didn’t have quite enough time to find the turf before the North Queensland kick chase dragged him over the line. McGuire was averaging more run metres in 2020 than any of his previous seasons, and added to them with a big charge to start the dropout, galvanising Robson into a similarly plosive effort on the third, only for Sironen to force a Taumalolo error a play later.

This was even more disappointing in that the set had featured arguably the deftest North Queensland play so far – a one-handed offload from Molo, who popped it out, right on the ground, to set up Robson’s run. DCE followed with his best kick in a while, not quite managing a 40/20, but still driving the Hammer back in goal to trap the Cows in their own end for the entire set, forcing Asi to put in his first kick within his forty.

Conversely, Suli got his strongest run of the night on the next set, burning his way up the right. For a moment this looked like a consolidation set for the Sea Eagles, but Daly got an unlikely ricochet off the grubber, while Gosiewski was just as unlucky with the kick, coughing up the ball just when Cust had got into space to cross over himself. This change in luck seemed to galvanise the Cowboys, as Molo reprised his offload to Robson, but this time even earlier in the tackle count, and even later in the tackle.

Taumalolo tried to pay tribute with some second phase play of his own on the next tackle, but instead he lost the footy into Jake Trbojevic, gifting Manly the scrum feed in the middle of the park. Murray Taulagi took out his team’s frustration by skittling Garrick on the first set, and AFB bounced and twisted through five tackles, staying strong until the last but fumbling the footy as he rose to play it. Taumalolo made up for his error with a quick play-the-ball, only for Clifford to knock on just as quickly.

In a weird way, the Cowboys had the upper hand here, since with so many chances the Sea Eagles should have had more than six points on the board, especially with twenty-five minutes elapsed. DCE seemed rattled at the end of the next set, when Coen Hess came in for a marginal late tackle, and Tom Gilbert followed with a rub on the ground. Daly is one of the most composed players in the game, so it was unusual to see him respond to Gilbert with so much emphasis that he was probably lucky not to be pinged.

Yet this display of passion from the Manly captain was the critical ingredient in rallying his team, who scored almost immediately here. First, Corey Waddell slammed in to dislodge the Steeden from Justin O’Neill, getting his men a full set in the North Queensland twenty, which was quickly augmented by a ruck error from Clifford. One play later, Levi showed why he’s the best short-range tryscorer in the game, building on a Brad Parker run to burrow under Clifford and the Hammer to put down try two.

Garrick added the extras again, and the Sea Eagles were 12-0 with ten minutes left until half time. Gosiewski flexed some second phase play a set later, and the Cowboys gave away even more field position a set after that, thanks to an ankle tap from Levi, who had been as staunch in defence as in attack. By this stage North Queensland had surpassed the Broncos for most tries conceded in their opening 11 games – 52 to Brisbane’s 51 – so they had to do something special to recover before the break.

McGuire took out his frustration with a huge hit on Cust a set later, and while the Manly five-eighth took a while to get to his feet, the visitors regained their momentum with a restart a play after. The next try attempt came on the same tackle, and it was just as fast as the last one – a barnstorming run from Gosiewski, who didn’t quite manage to extricate himself out of a ball-and-all tackle from Mitch Dunn. This was tough stuff from the North Queensland no. 4, who put his whole body on the line to save the try.

Gosiewski initially looked certain to score – only the slo-mo showed how deftly Dunn had come in – so this was a big turning-point if the North Queensland players could capitalise on it. They survived the next two tackles, and Taumalolo deftly managed to avoid a dropout, before getting a boost up the park off an offside penalty from Taniela Paseka. Right up, North Queensland settled into some of their most elastic play so far on the left, thanks to a linkup between the Hammer and Taulagi.

They were even more efficient on the right side on the last, as Clifford chipped to Feldt, and found his man. You couldn’t have asked for a more classic Feldt try, or a more elegant single tryscoring motion, as the cult winger got his own back for all Taufua’s superb takes during the first quarter, soaring a full metre above his opposing no. 2 to collect the footy in both hands, AFL-style, and then get it to ground all in one passage, putting himself one behind Ashley Graham at fourth all-time Cowboys tryscorer.

Feldt followed with the best kick of the night too, sailing it beautifully from the right sideline past the left post. Sensing that this might be a close game, and that the Cows might continue to roll off Feldt’s effort in the second stanza, DCE went for a field goal right on the siren, but missed the posts, keeping it a converted try game as both teams headed to the sheds – North Queensland galvanised by this fast finish, and Manly probably frustrated at not being further ahead, given their possession and position.

Cust came close to a linebreak on the first carry back from the sheds, and the Sea Eagles got a restart midway through the tackle count, only for Gosiewski to fumble the footy into Gibert and Gavin Cooper as he tried to free his right arm for an offload. Coops did better with the second phase play early in the next set, popping the ball back to Robson to get his men some early field position, while Wright and Taumalolo followed with some grunt work on the right edge to set up Clifford up for a bomb to the wing.

The footy didn’t find Feldt this time, though, as the kick turned into a pretty easy collect for Parker. Cust got the offload right on the third, sending it back to Trbojevic, and DCE grubbered along the turf for field position on the last. Yet the Cows now had their best set since the break, bullocking up the field and getting back-to-back restarts off successive errors from Trbojevic. After five minutes of one-handed efforts, Cooper had the most heroic, as he took the ball from Taumalolo and charged under the crossbar.

Five Sea Eagles slammed in to stop him, and for a moment the game seemed to segue into slow motion, as Cooper reached out his arm, and came within a few centimetres of the turf, hovering in space before the bundle of Manly jerseys wrapped around him, but even then twisting around for one more shot before the tackle was completed. The replay showed that he’d maintained possession, and Clifford concluded with another chip to the right, where Taufua just beat Feldt, but knocked on to concede six more.

This was the best North Queensland field position of the game, so it was a big letdown when Asi, who was unmarked, showed his inexperience by failing to secure a cut-out pass from Clifford on the left sideline. The Cows had failed to consolidate at various points during the game, but this was the most painful, and possibly the key turning-point, steeling them into their most free-flowing and expansive footy on the following set, culminating with McGuire taking the ball out of dummy half on the fourth tackle.

Asi’s kick on the last wasn’t that much better than his left side play – a chip straight to Brendan Elliot, who caught it on the chest, in front of the posts, to get Manly rolling again. Taumalolo came off the park a bit earlier than usual, to prepare himself for a second act later on, and the Cows rolled up the field pretty well on their next set, but once again Elliot had no problem with the kick, which came from Clifford now. Apart from the Clifford-Feldt combo, the hosts hadn’t enjoyed a really good kick play so far.

With ten minutes gone since the break, the game had settled into the most consistent set-for-set rhythm all night. Molo got a third terrific offload out the back, this time to O’Neill, but Clifford couldn’t replicate it to Reuben Cotter a play later, as the Sea Eagles packed yet another scrum. Taupau was the next to lose the ball, but it came down as a strip penalty for Gilbert, who was having one of his most involved games of the year.

Kapow was more secure with his ball handling on the next tackle, despite a huge effort around the waist from Wright, and Levi took a big hit from some of the North Queensland big men, before DCE grubbered overlong on the last, Clifford stayed calm, and the Steeden tumbled into touch, as Elliot held onto Feldt’s ankle at the end of the quick tap for what looked like a certain professional foul. Instead, the Cows had to be content with a restart.

Again, though, they couldn’t capitalise, as Dunn kicked before the last, and DCE fed the Hammer a long, skittering kick to consolidate further on the Manly field position. Taumalolo now arrived off a seven minute stint on the bench, refreshed and renewed as the last quarter of the game approached. With only a converted try separating the two teams, and no points since the break, it was starting to feel like the next to score might take control of the last twenty minutes, or that the next try might be the last. 

In other words, both teams needed a big one-man effort – and Manly delivered on their next set, when Croker took some of the pressure off Levi, executing a daring run out of dummy half and shifting the Steeden across to Cust, who turned a full 360 to bump off Clifford, break through the line, and shoot it across to DCE. Cometh the hour cometh the man, and the Manly and Queensland captain now ran a hard line to showcase the best grounding of Round 10, and one of the best putdowns of 2020.

If Daly’s run was heroic, than Feldt’s kick chase was just as good – a ball-and-all tackle in which he got under DCE, kept him on his back, and then actually somersaulted him over onto his head in a desperate effort to save the try, as divots of turf went flying in all directions. In the kind of superhuman effort that makes NRL so amazing, though, Daly responded in kind, managing to keep his elbow off the ground and then actually use the scale of the tackle to generate enough momentum to get the footy down.

DCE now had back-to-back tries for the first time since 2018, setting up Garrick for his third straight conversion of the night, but more importantly he’d provided the leadership both teams were searching for in this back quarter, giving his men an adrenalin burst that they rode until the very end of the match. For a moment, it looked like the Cowboys had hit back, with a strong close-range set three minutes later, but it ended with Hess putting down Asi’s first great kick of the night on the left edge.

In a sense, Hess had repeated Asi’s own error earlier in the game, and that compounded mistake seemed to motivated Manly on the next set, since they quickly moved through a Sironen slip to accelerate again here, thanks in part to a superb offload from Addin Fonua-Blake, who got the ball back to Taupau with the other no. 10 around his ankles. The last Manly try was the simplest, as Cust ran the footy on the last, dummying before slamming through three defenders to score on the left side.

Cust had mirrored and corrected Hess’ try, or at least scored in the same part of the park, while his decision and ability to run the ball marked a pivotal moment in his evolution at five-eighth. The Manly spine had delivered on all fronts over the last five minutes, and Garrick was also having a great night with the boot, making it 4/4 with twelve left on the clock. Yet the Cows bounced back for one last try on their next set, getting six again, and then showing they could crash through from short range too.

After a night of superb second phase play, Molo showed he was just as good with the first phase too, collecting a short ball right on the line and burrowing through three defenders to score the last four for North Queensland. Molo effectively siphoned off some of Manly’s momentum here, so with Feldt adding the extras it really looked as if the Cowboys might be in for a shot. Stranger things have happened, in football, than a converted try comeback with ten to go, but the Cows couldn’t carry it off here.

They got their best chance with a linebreak from the Hammer two minutes out from the end, but it was quickly followed by an O’Neill error, and then an unsuccessful challenge to try and reverse the call. Manly deserved to win after their two great tries, both of which were season highlights, putting them in a good mindset to take on a Penrith outfit making history next weekend. On the other side of the Steeden, the Cows will be looking to make more of the home ground advantage when they host the Raiders on Saturday night, and to do more with their kicking combinations in particular.

About Billy Stevenson (751 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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