The Cowboys had a few reshuffles when they hosted Penrith on Friday night for Gavin Cooper’s last home game. Jason Taumalolo was back after tearing his calf muscle against the Knights, Murray Taulagi was replacing Justin O’Neill at centre, and Francis Molo was named at lock while Josh McGuire continued to pay for his backchat against Grant Atkins. On the other side of the Steeden, James Tamou and Zane Tetevano were rested as Penrith looked for their 18th win of 2020, while Mitch Kenny was replacing Api Koroisau at dummy half.
Penrith had only won one of their past seven games in Townsville, but the Cowboys had lost all games against top four teams in 2020, so the result was perhaps a bit predictable – a Panthers win, but a win margin of only 30, at 12-32, mitigated by North Queensland’s home ground advantage. Yet this was also a very late comeback from the Cows, who didn’t score their first try until the final quarter, by which point the mountain men had rocketed ahead to a stunning 26-0 lead.
Penrith were massive in defence on the first set, bringing in a pack effort to push Jordan Maclean back on the first play – and they were just as strong when they got their first touch of the football, rolling up the park through a strong catch from Dylan Edwards, a tough carry from Josh Mansour, and big metres from James Fisher-Harris. Nathan Cleary’s first bomb was intense, and while Valentine Holmes was safe beneath it, Scott Drinkwater knocked on two plays later, setting up Penrith for their first four points.
They got a restart on tackle one, off a ruck error from Mitch Dunn, and Viliame Kikau followed with a fend and flick for Mansour on the left edge. Isaah Yeoh almost went all the way on play three, so it felt inevitable when Brian To’o culminated all this momentum by chasing down an Edwards grubber to somersault over the footy before Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow could get there. Cleary sailed it in front of the posts, but this was still a really strong start from Penrith, who already seemed to be in finals mode.
The mountain men were just as fast on the restart, muscling their way up the middle third, as Cleary booted through his second bomb of the game, which the Hammer found considerably harder than Holmes to clean up. Jake Clifford went bomb-for-bomb, hoisting up a high one that forced To’o to his knees, but this didn’t dent the Panthers, as Luai made their first offload three tackles later, Moses Leota secured five post-contact metres, and Cleary targeted the Hammer, who lose it back to Yeoh.
In the first real let-off for the Cowboys, however, this was deemed to be a Penrith knock-on, while the home team got some breathing-space when the Panthers sent it upstairs. The replay showed that To’o had got to it first, but knocked it backwards, before the knock-on came from the Hammer, so the visitors were a bit unlucky not to get the ball back. A big run from Drinkwater now turned Luai inside out, and finally got the Cows into Penrith territory, where Edwards was clinical under Clifford’s next kick.
To’o made up for his error with a bullet offload to Brent Naden, and this time Cleary chose to run it on the last, sending a cut-out ball to Naden, who made the kick as his halfback took on chase duties. Kyle Feldt cleaned it up just in time, but another Penrith try didn’t feel too away, as Luai started a rapid left sweep through Kikau, who disposed of three tiers of Cowboys defence – dancing over an ankle tap for Daejarn Asi, fending off Mitch Dunn, and offloading to Crichton as Holmes brought him down.
Reading the play perfectly, Crichton had built up more than enough speed to smash through Feldt at the last to slam down the Panthers’ second try, bringing him within two of David Nofoaluma’s position at the top of the 2020 tryscoring ladder. Cleary added his first conversion to make it a ten point game, before Luai put a foot back to collect the kickoff, getting his men an accelerated restart to play with, as Fish got them rolling with a trademark tough carry up the middle of the park.
A Cleary dummy would have sent Kikau through the line if not for a Drinkwater trysaver, but the Panthers scored on the very next tackle, albeit in one of the more unusual sequences of 2020. Luai’s kick was perfectly placed for Crichton, who would have got it down if Feldt hadn’t pulled him off it. This looked like a clear penalty try, only for Mansour to chase down the footy as it ricocheted away from the two backliners, getting it to ground on the dead ball line just before tumbling into touch.
This might have been an eight-point try, but with the Bunker ruling on Mansour’s putdown, and Cleary missing his second conversion, it was only worth half that much – a small let-off for the Cowboys, even if they were now 0-14. It was also a bit deflating for the Panthers, who permitted the home team to make a bit more headway over the next few minutes, as Drinkwater experimented with running the footy more fluidly, and Asi bumped Kikau into touch for the David-and-Goliath effort of the night.
Even so, we were dealing with a Panthers outfit enjoying their best defence in 29 years – a team who hadn’t lost in 98 days – so they were able to withstand the field position that North Queensland built over the next ten minutes. The low point came with three successive penalties – dangerous tackles from Naden and Kikau (who was put on report) and offside from Edwards – as the Cowboys overcame a Holmes error to build towards the first dropout of the game at the thirty minute mark.
For a moment this looked like the consolidation moment the home team were looking for as half time approached, since this was one of the better executed dropouts of Round 19. Clifford kicked from inside the forty, and then joined Gavin Cooper for the chase as the Steeden landed just outside the ten and careened back in goal. By the time that Edwards had brought it back into the field of play he didn’t stand a chance, as Cooper and Clifford dragged him back to cap off the Cows’ best attacking set so far.
Yet that just made it all the more incredible when Penrith delivered one of their best attacking sets of the year, stealing the Cowboys’ repeat set to showcase the very apex of their 2020 form. Cleary might not have been 100% with the conversions tonight, but the nailed the kick here – a compressed bomb to the left, where Crichton leaped into touch to pop it back to Luai. At the other end of the park, Luai returned the favour, bombing on the last for Crichton to catch it on the full and offload right back to him.
This was one of the high points of the 2020 season, as the Panthers kept their opponents scoreless at halftime for the fifth time this year. Liam Martin made one of their few unforced errors to start the second stanza, and Cleary followed with a ruck infringement, but this brief Cowboys advantage went the same way as the last one. Martin made up for his mistake by spearheading a splendid pack effort to hold up Clifford on the last, and Reuben Cotter sent it forward next time he had ball in hand.
Penrith now made good metres up the middle and on the right edge, but it all came down to Cleary’s chip on the last, which shifted the play to the left wing, where Kikau leaped up to collect the footy on the full, before twisting through a Mitch Dunn tackle to get it down. This was the easiest try of the night for Penrith, and North Queensland started to stare down a pretty dangerous scoreline as Cleary booted through two more to bring his men to a 26-0 lead.
That said, the Cowboys got their next big burst of field position a few minutes later, when Edwards made his first error in three weeks by missing a Clifford bomb. Dunn dummied and got past Luai a tackle later, but the Panthers swarmed in for the best trysaving sequence of the match, as a mass of Penrith jerseys gradually coalesced into Crichton getting underneath the footy with a follow-up effort on top from Edwards, who continued to compensate for his mistake by taking the next kick on the full.
Unfortunately he was close enough to the try line, and high enough in the air, that the Cows were able to drag him back in goal for their third dropout of the game. Jason Taumalolo channeled their growing confidence with his first big run at close range, but Yeoh was there to contain him, forcing the hosts to shift their attention back to the right edge of the park, where Drinkwater’s kick went through four pairs of hands before producing a second Edwards knock-on.
In the tenor of the game as a whole, things now came apart for the Cows, as Drinkwater’s next cut-out pass missed its mark, and cost his men before Feldt cleaned it up on the sideline. The wiry winger clamoured for a penalty as he got to his feet from a big Mansour tackle, but got no joy, while Taulagi knocked on Clifford’s last pass to To’o, meaning that the Cowboys had to wait until the final pointscoring passage – from the sixtieth minute to the seventieth minute – to put down their two tries of the match.
They got a brief prelude a minute before, when a Cotter putdown beside the posts was sent up as try. Yet it turned into another great save from Edwards, who got beneath the ball this time, as Tyrone May came in on top to help rattle it loose. Earlier in the game, this would probably have produced another Penrith try, but now Kenny fumbled the footy while collecting it out of dummy half – the first time in the match that Koroisau’s absence had really seemed to disrupt the Panthers’ focus and precision.
The Cows now marched clinically up all three thirds of the park, as Taulagi almost broke through a Cleary tackle, and Drinkwater’s kick bounced at an odd angle. They used their Captain’s Challenge to challenge to gain the Tabuai try that ensued, since this was initially denied due to a supposed offside from Cooper. This was one of the best Challenges of the year, taking us through Capewell collecting it, Cooper slapping his hand, and the Hammer somehow escaping his own offside to get the chocolates.
This was also a pretty anomalous try from the Cowboys, and possibly the longest Bunker scrutiny of a try all year, as Holmes booted through the two and the Panthers’ 156 minutes without conceding a try came to an end. North Queensland accelerated on the restart, with Molo popping a neat offload out the back on play two, and Holmes almost breaking through the line on play four, before Crichton slipped over to twistily and clutchily secure the footy in both hands for the best high ball collect all game.
Holmes was more confident under Cleary’s highest bomb of the night, and Clifford followed Molo with a no-look offload to Maclean, who did well with the last-tackle kick. Just as the game was finally feeling like a relatively even playing field, Luai made a beautiful offload, sending the Steeden past two pairs of North Queensland hands to his halfback. Cleary dashed up the sideline, dummied and sailed a sublime cut-out pass for Naden, who took it fifteen out and slid over untouched for his tenth try this year.
Nevertheless, the Cowboys put down the last try, getting their own back for their lost dropout when Clifford followed Cleary by going short with the kick, allowing Feldt to tap it back inside to Maclean. Felft ended the set too, collecting a superb harbour bridge assist from Drinkwater to crash over in the right corner, before a second Holmes conversion brought us to the final scoreline of 32-12, despite some big Penrith plays in the final ten minutes.
Seeing Feldt score is always a big motivator for the Cowboys, who’ll be looking to draw on this late game energy when they meet the Broncos at Suncorp for the first match of Round 20. On the other side of the Steeden, the Panthers are wrestling with history, since if they beat the Bulldogs next week – and they should – they’ll have the best result since the 1959 Dragons; a tantalising prospect with finals football just around the corner.