Canberra and North Queensland may have been the top and bottom eight respectively, but only a penalty goal separated them when they met in Townsville on Saturday night. The Cowboys started fast, gaining some early field position off a knock-on from Jack Wighton, the first restart ten metres out from the Raiders’ line, and then the first try when Reece Robson crashed over from short range on play one, dummying to the left, scooting back inside, taking advantage of a defensive misread from Dunamis Lui on Jordan Maclean, and putting in a big left fend to skittle Jordan Rapana right beside the posts. Kyle Feldt added the extras from in front, and so the Cows were more than a point per minute, bringing the footy back over the halfway line by the fourth tackle of the restart, although Rapana caught the kick on the full, and the Raiders got their first restart a moment later. Jordan Maclean continued to rack up the metres on the next North Queensland set, and Jake Clifford ended with the first really towering bomb of the night, but once again Rapana was safe beneath it, and once again Canberra got a restart to accelerate out of their own end. Accordingly, Clifford opted for a banana kick next time around, and this time Rapana slipped catching it, bunching the Raiders in their own end, and forcing Wighton to kick within the forty, although it all came to nothing when Feldt lost the football early in the following tackle count
This marked the start of a series of early tackle errors, with Elliott Whitehead returning the favour by coughing up the ball on play two of the next set, thanks to a terrific combined tackle from Robson and Francis Molo, who became the next to lost the ball, although this time it was called a strip from Wighton, as the Cows finally got to a kick. Feldt leaped up in the air above Samo Valemei for what would have been the take of the year if he hadn’t collided with the Canberra winger and landed awkwardly on his shoulder – yet another example of his ability to import an AFL mindset into the NRL backline. Luckily he didn’t seem injured by the fall, and in fact spearheaded a huge effort to drive Jarrod Croker ten metres back at the end of the next Canberra set. Ben Hampton added a chip to the Cowboys’ kick roster next time they got to their last play, and the ball ricocheted off the Canberra defence, gifting his men a fresh set of six, which was augmented by a restart a few plays later. This was the fastest accumulation of field position all game, so it was a big letdown when Robson kicked on play two, sending the ball straight into Dunamis Lui on the left edge. For a moment, the Raiders looked set to capitalise on this shift in momentum, as Nick Cotric made a barnstorming run up the middle of the field, but Sivila Havili undid it all by joining the ranks of players who’d let go of the Steeden early in the tackle count.Embed from Getty Images
With the game settling into an error-fest, one team had to break the deadlock – and Clifford tried to do it with a bold set play out of the scrum, kicking on play one to the right corner, where Rapana got to it five metres out only to lose the ball in goal. Valemei arrived at it next, and initially seemed to have conceded a dropout, only for a Bunker review to deem that Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow had got there first, turning a North Queensland dropout into a fresh set for Canberra. Finally, the Raiders broke the stalemate, as Curtis Scott found space for Cotric, who stormed from the twenty to the Cowboys’ forty, fending off Hampton before popping the footy across to George Williams, who also outsped Hampton to get the ball down. The try looked even better in slow motion, from Cotric’s deft receipt of the football – collecting it in his left hand and then securing it in his right – to Williams’ elegant skip and dance over Hampton at the final moment. Croker’s conversion locked things up at 6-6, and Josh Papalii made the best offload on the next set – on the ground to Rapana – while Wighton nailed the kick chase to trap North Queensland five metres out from their line. Rapana followed with his best moment at fullback, sliding on the sideline to pop a Clifford kick back in field, but was less confident a set later, when he coughed up the footy while trying to secure and return it from in goal.
North Queensland had clearly been pushing early kicks during the week, since Clifford now booted it early once again, grubbering on the third for an easy cleanup from Croker. The last big event of the first half was a dropout forced by Wighton – the costliest dropout of Round 12, since Feldt kicked the footy out on the full, setting up Croker to boot through the penalty goal that ended up giving Canberra the game. The Raiders got some good field position four minutes back from the break, when John Bateman deflected Hampton’s hands on the brink of an inside pass, resulting in a low ball that John Asiata only just knocked on while trying to collect it. Still, Rapana became the next player to lose the football on the first tackle, while Coen Hess got pretty lucky two tackles after the next set restart, when he made a poor offload out the back that Scott very nearly collected, only to follow Asiata by knocking on right on the ground. Once again, the game was crying out for one player to step up with a big individual effort – crying out for leadership – and for a moment Papalii seemed to have provided it, executing a one-on-one strip on Shane Wright at the very moment when North Queensland got their next restart on play one. All the changeovers of the last few minutes seemed to have accelerated and evaporated with this take – the best play of the night – and yet Papalii was put on report a moment later for a careless tackle on Tabuai-Fidow, while the game paused as the Hammer got an on-field head exam.Embed from Getty Images
Yet again, the game had been on the cusp of accelerating, only to decelerate further, with Hampton sending out a forward pass a set later to cost the Cows another opportunity, and Wighton grubbering too far next time he had ball in hand. Corey Harawira-Naera made his Canberra debut as the fifty minute mark approached, while Clifford reached his nadir by lobbing the footy of the edge of his boot to send it so far over the sideline that not even Kyle Feldt could save it. Yet Mitch Dunn got some revenge for Papalii’s strip with a strip of his own on Dunamis Lui – and, as it turned out, this was an error too far for Canberra, since Jason Taumalolo now stepped up with exactly the one-man effort the Cows needed, receiving the footy from Asiata ten metres out and then sliding through the defence for the second North Queensland try. Feldt was always going to get the conversion from right in front, while Taumalolo’s try had put him on top with the running metres – 131 compared to Papalii’s 125 – although it didn’t take long for the Raiders to bounce back, thanks to a superb run across the ruck from Williams, who shifted the ball to his right hand and shaped to kick, only to pass instead to Bateman. From there Bateman bumped off Justin O’Neill and put in a big left foot step to send the Steeden across to Scott, who made an equally big fend to ward off Murray Taulagi and slam the footy down in the corner, before Croker made the best conversion of the night, curving the ball perfectly around the right post.
Both sides got a successful Captain’s Challenge to try and restore their momentum, while the Raiders received a late burst of field position after Maclean and Hampton conceded a pair of penalties in the last ten minutes for a dangerous tackle and offside error respectively, but the scoreline remained as it was – a fitting ending to a game where each try had been so hard won. On the brink of full time, another pair of Captain’s Challenges ensued – unsuccessful from the Raiders, but successful from the Cowboys, who got one last chance to win the match only for Tabuai-Fidow to make the last mistake, culminating a bit of a wobbly night at fullback – an even more disappointing conclusion in that the Cowboys had enjoyed the upper hand for a fair chunk of the game. Like the Bulldogs against the Eels the next afternoon, the possibility of a genuine upset made the expected ending particularly galling, so North Queensland will be keen to bounce back when they take on a Gold Coast outfit who very nearly had their own upset against the Roosters earlier in the afternoon. On the other side of the Steeden, this was a bit of a scare for the Raiders, who would have been expecting a much bigger win margin, so they need to dig deep to come up with the stamina to take on a Penrith outfit who are playing near-perfect football when they meet the black and white army for a home game next Saturday night at the foot of the mountains.