ROUND 17: North Queensland Cowboys v. St. George-Illawarra Dragons (Queensland Country Bank Stadium, 6/9/20)
The Dragons were making their first appearance at the new North Queensland stadium when they rocked up on Sunday evening, although the Cowboys had lost their last four matches at their home ground, and were trying to avoid a double-figures losing streak comparable to their 10-game low points in 1998 and 1999, and their 13-game nadir in 2008. This was the third year in a row they wouldn’t reach finals footy, so they were playing for pride, eventually nailing an extremely close contest in golden point.
Esan Marsters was playing for the first time under Josh Hannay, while Jake Clifford was replacing Michael Morgan, out with a calf injury. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow was back from a hamstring injury on the wing, Valentine Holmes was in the no. 1 jersey, and Scott Drinkwater had shifted to five-eighth – a pretty imposing lineup for a St. George outfit that had only come up with a sole Jacob Host try against Gold Coast the week before, even if they had Ben Hunt’s 250th game to galvanise them.
Both teams rolled up and down the park for the first couple of sets, before Valentine Holmes didn’t bend down quite low enough to scoop up an Adam Clune kick on the sideline, setting up St. George for their first scrum of the night. Yet they had a knock-on on their own right edge just as quickly, when Mikaele Ravalawa put down what should have been a stellar try assist from Matt Dufty. No doubt there was pressure from Hamisn Tabuai-Fidow, but this was an unforced error in spirit, a loose carry.
The Cowboys got the first restart early in their next set, and Josh McGuire set them up in front of the posts, as Scott Drinkwater tried to cross over beneath the crossbar, and Reuben Cotter followed in his place, forcing Cam McInnes to get beneath the ball as he surged a metre over the try line. Jake Clifford ended with a chip to the left edge, and the Dragons got the ball back when the Hammer knocked it on in the air, mirroring his good work on Ravalawa, just as Ravalawa’s knock-on had mirrored Holmes’.
In other words, this game already had a symmetry around it, foreshadowing the tie that would take it to golden point, while Holmes now had his best kick return yet, bringing the Steeden back from five in goal to avoid a dropout. The Cows got the first penalty a tackle later, after Host was called offside, leapfrogging up field early in the set, just as the Cows had early in their last set. The next few tackles were pretty standard, but that all changed when Cotter took another shot between the posts.
This time Cotter opted to assist instead of score himself, collecting the footy out of dummy half, showing it and then shifting it across for Francis Molo to barge through a low tackle from McInnes and a torso tackle from Blake Lawrie. He came to ground just shy of the line, but the strength of his short-range run meant he could bounce over without committing a double movement, bringing North Queensland to a six point lead once Holmes booted through an easy conversion from right in front.
The Dragons survived the restart and made good metres on their next set, thanks to a strong run from Jordan Pereira. Kyle Feldt did well to take a delayed kick from Clune, and Dufty did even better to stretch out on the ground and collect Clifford’s next effort with the boot on the first bounce. Lawrie and McGuire made big contact as the game amped up a level, while Holmes came up with a third great take under the high ball, twisting his body to prevent damaging contact or another knock-on.
St. George eventually benefited from this period of escalating intensity, getting their first penalty of the match when Mitch Dunn was called offside early in the next tackle count. Drinkwater tried to intercept a pass from Clune to Dufty a few plays later, and probably would have scored if he’d stretched out his right hand a bit further, since it was open space all the way to the St. George line. Even the errors were balanced tonight, though, since Clune put down a Ben Hunt ball out of the scrum a second later.
Jordan Maclean now had his toughest run of the night, shrugging off Hunt and Lawrie to clear up space for a Clifford chip that secured the first dropout of the game. Once again, though, they collapsed on the first, as Holmes double-pumped too quickly at the tail end of a right sweep, falconing the footy off Justin O’Neill’s head instead of sliding it all the way out to the wing. St. George got six again on their next carry, shifting the Steeden from side to side before Tyson Frizell glimpsed a half-break on the right edge.
Clune wasn’t quite as good Clifford with the kick, however, stumbling on the last and sending the footy dead in goal to gift the first seven tackle set of the night to North Queensland. It was starting to feel like a match of single-tackle sets now, as McGuire became the next player to lose the ball, before Hunt sent out a forward pass to Josh Kerr just as quickly. Errors from Ravalawa and Holmes soon followed, but Euan Aitken got the Dragons back on track with two massive efforts.
First, he made three successive tackles before stripping the Steeden from Drinkwater; then, he collected a sublime cut-out pass from Hunt to cross over on the left wing without O’Neill getting a hand to him, for his third successive try against North Queensland. This was terrific service out of dummy half from Hunt, while Corey Norman had laid the foundation a tackle before, taking a low hit from Dunn before receiving the footy, and fumbling it as a result, but still regathering it for more metres.
Lomax booted through a deft sideline conversion to make it six-all, and followed with the best take yet under the high ball, dribbling it down his chest under big pressure from Marsters and the Hammer, while withstanding their combined effort to drag him over the sideline by popping it back in field, where Clifford knocked on. In yet another of the symmetries that had defined this game, however, Clifford got some closure for both himself and Drinkwater with a one-on-one strip of his own.
Hammer now consolidated with a strong run up the middle, shifting it inside to Holmes and taking possession again. It wasn’t a linebreak, but it had the same impact, getting Clifford in place to secure a second dropout with a dangerous bounce that Dufty did well to pop into touch before Clifford could chase it down. The Dragons settled into their best left sweep, ending with a no-look pass from Lomax, out of the right hand, that Ravalawa caught in the left, to make good on his botched putdown earlier on.
It was almost worth Ravalawa missing his previous try to score here, since this was easily the best grounding of his career. As soon as he received the Steeden from Lomax, he pirouetted on his right toe, a milimetre out from the sideline, and then braced himself to take Lomax’s follow-up effort, twisting his entire lower torso over the edge of the park while putting the Steeden down just inside the field of play – such an improbable effort that the Bunker had to rewind it a few times just to believe it.
Lomax missed the conversion, keeping it a four point game, and Holmes took advantage of the next poor kick from Clune, reaching a foot back over the sideline to get his men seven tackles. Clifford didn’t do much better with the boot though, ricocheting it off the defence and straight into Lomax’s hands, giving the Cowboys another chance to draw on Billy Brittain, who had just come off the interchange bench and already contributed a terrific run up the middle of the park.
Holmes risked the widest pass of the night to the Hammer on tackle one of the next North Queensland set, but the Cows weren’t quite as adventurous on the last tackle, when Dunn sent it into touch to get his men some much-needed breathing-space. They’d need the more sustained rest of half-time to put down their next four points, just after the break, although the Dragons were pretty exhausted here too, with Aitken slipping over midway down the park next time he had ball in hand.
Norman made up for it with a superb linebreak, and could have crossed over himself, but opted for a poor pass to the left edge, where the footy ricocheted off Aitken’s left boot instead of finding his centre on the chest. Still, the Dragons got the last laugh during this first stanza, as Lomax booted through the first penalty goal of the game from long-range after Drinkwater was pinged for dragging Clune back from Norman – although not given a professional foul, which was pretty lucky for North Queensland.
St. George led by six as they headed into the sheds, but the Cowboys levelled the score just as quickly on the other side, thanks to a stellar sequence from Clifford on their first set back. His kick on the last careened back at a crazy angle, defying the defence enough for O’Neill to tap it back to Holmes, who offloaded on the ground for Feldt. From there, Feldt barged into Pereira and offloaded in turn, shifting it out to Clifford, who bookended this sublime sequence to fend off Dufty with his left hand and score.
This was the best team try of the year from North Queensland, a testament to the dexterity of both their spine and backline, so in any other game it would have propelled them into a torrent of points, especially when Holmes booted through a brilliant kick from the left sideline. They also seemed to have luck on their side, since despite a particularly long scrutiny by the Bunker, Dunn appeared to get away with being offside late in the tryscoring sequence, to the chagrin of the small St. George crowd.
True to the spirit of this particular game, however, the Dragons recovered pretty quickly, or at least didn’t allow the Cows to accelerate too much. Dufty did well to prevent Clifford bumping him into touch on the right sideline, Ravalawa collected Drinkwater’s next bomb and made good post-contact metres, Jackson Ford added twenty up the middle, and Clune ran deep into the line to send Jacob Host through a ball-and-all effort from Feldt to slam down the next four points for St. George.
Lomax’s kick was high but true, and just like that the Dragons had resumed their six point lead. They also had a better restart than the Cowboys, as Frizell took a big tackle three plays in, clearing up space for Norman to accelerate down the right edge, before he popped the footy back inside for Cam McInnes, only for the St. George hooker to pass too early to Dufty, who wasn’t prepared for it. The Red V survived, but they’d lost the momentum, and so this brief glimpse of back-to-back tries quickly closed down.
The Cows tried to capitalise with a pack error on Pereira a set later, but they were unable to drag him back behind the try line, although Norman was still forced to kick from within his own forty. Cometh the hour cometh the man, as Ravalawa now tried to reset the game with the shot of the night on the Hammer, coming in low to skittle the Steeden out his grasp, and send him somersaulting towards the east grandstand.
Again, this should have been a rallying-point for St. George, but this game was too evenly stacked for that, as Clifford responded to their first right-side raid with a superb strip on Lomax. Both teams now got two critical rests, the first when Dufty allowed the ball to trickle over the sideline, and the second when Clune missed a 40/20, while the Cowboys got a second wind when Gavin Cooper came off the bench, taking advantage of a Pereira miss to force the first dropout of the second stanza from Clune.
Cotter made the first convincing shot at the line, early in the tackle count, to the right of the posts, and the forwards then moved to consolidating field position up the middle, opening up space for Holmes to cross over on the other edge. This was the best of Holmes’ three tries since returning from the NFL – receiving a short ball from Drinkwater, slicing through the defence, and pivoting on his right arm to somersault the Steeden onto the grass, before converting his four points to six a moment later.
The third quarter had started with the game all locked up at 12-12, and now the fourth quarter started with the game all locked up at 18-18, just as the fifth passage of play, after the siren, would start with it locked up at 22-22. Meanwhile, Hunt was pinged and put on report for leading with the leg while trying to prevent Holmes’ passage to the line – this was what had prompted his unusual somersaulting motion – although Clifford wasted the field position by sending his next kick out on the full.
St. George got their restart after all, then, as Aiken almost slammed over on the left, and the Red V rapidly shifted right, where Norman ended with a crossfield chip. O’Neill caught it smoothly, but the Dragons got the scrum again when Molo bobbled the ball three tackles later. Despite the even contest, the visitors now had the most sustained passage of field position in the second half – and got the next penalty to boot, when Cotter was pinged for a strip on Aitken, with Molo also in the tackle.
Lomax took the two from right in front, and the Dragons grooved into one of their strongest set openings since the break, thanks in part to a tough run from Frizell, so it was pretty impressive when Holmes caught the kick on the full, made it past the ten, and sent out a harbour bridge ball to Marsters. The best field position of the second half had been followed by the best counter-attack, as the Cowboys now got a penalty after Lawrie’s boot got tangled up in the play-the-ball, and scored a tackle later.
This was the last great sweep of the game, and the last try of the game, as O’Neill fed the footy to Drinkwater, who fended off Clune, dummied and flicked it out to Feldt to cross over untouched. Holmes missed his first conversion of the evening to keep it a two point margin, and Lomax levelled the score with his third penalty kick four minutes out from the siren, when Marsters was pinged for an offside error just after Frizell passed the footy off the ground, out of a clutch Clifford tackle.
The right-footed Lomax had a tough angle, but still slotted through the most critical kick of his year, locking it up again at 22-22. Clifford attempted the second field goal of his career and sliced it away to the right of the posts, so St. George had seven tackles to get in place for a field goal of their own, with a minute on the clock, only for Lomax to shank it as well, taking us into golden point as a slightly delayed siren rang out over Townsville, and extra time was slightly delayed for McInnes to have his head strapped.
North Queensland got the first touch, with the wind at their backs, but didn’t get to a close-range option, so Drinkwater drove the footy deep into the right corner to try and box the Dragons in. Frizell recouped with a sublime, curving run, and Norman took a shot from the forty, becoming the third player to send it wide. Hunt put in an AFL-style play to tap back Holmes’ next field goal attempt, but an Aitken knock-on just after gave the Cowboys the chance they needed to finally bring it all home.
This time Holmes nailed it, slotting through the one as the Townsville crowd went wild. They may not have a shot at finals, but they’d probably prevented the Dragons getting a shot at finals, with a win that echoed their iconic Grand Final victory in extra time. They’ll be pumped, then, when meet the Storm on the Sunshine Coast next week, while St. George will need to regather before they host the Raiders in Wollongong on Saturday, as both teams look for a bigger margin than the closest match of Round 17.
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