The Broncos came away with their first ever wooden spoon when they hosted the Cowboys for the first match of Round 20, although that couldn’t detract from the gravity of Darius Boyd’s final game in the NRL after fifteen years of first grade football. Jason Taumalolo took the first hit-up, and Jake Clifford the first bomb, but the Broncos started strong, with Richie Kennar safe beneath the high ball, and Boyd making a good run up the middle out of dummy half on play four.
Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow was as good as Kennar with his first take but he lost the footy into a big tackle from Kotoni Staggs a moment later, setting up Brisbane for an early try. Tom Dearden ducked into Tom Gilbert on the right, Joe Ofahengaue took a hit-up just beside the posts, Payne Haas added metres, Staggs showcased some dazzling footwork, and Herbie Farnworth added the icing by stealing a Dearden kick back from Kyle Feldt, popping it back to Haas for his first try of 2020.
Right away we were treated to the new NRL procedure, as Grant Atkins awarded the try on the spot and the Bunker were given until the conversion to reverse it, choosing to support the on-field decision as Staggs booted the two points through the posts. Issac Luke was restless on the restart, making his first big impact of the evening, but Dearden couldn’t get to the kick, thanks to a huge tackle from Clifford that got North Queensland rolling back down the field once again.
They shifted from side to side, and Clifford came up with a big kick at the end, lobbing the Steeden crossfield where Feldt forced the first dropout of the night from Coates, before Coates conceded his second at the end of the subsequent set – this time off a brilliant Drinkwater grubber that he collected right on the line, where a pack of five Cowboys drove him back in goal for another six tackles.
With a penalty on the second play for an illegal strip from Ofahengaue, and the first restart soon after, North Queensland needed to score here to consolidate the first big burst of field position all night, so it was a testament to the Brisbane defence when Val Holmes knocked on a Clifford kick under pressure from all sides. Yet the Broncos – and NSW Blues – copped a much bigger blow when Staggs was assisted off the park after his left leg twisted under him as he was coming in for a heroic low effort on Gilbert.
Ten minutes into the game Brisbane had lost arguably their best player of the season, since it was quickly confirmed that this was indeed an ACL tear for Kotoni, although they got a chance to recoup off the next error from the Hammes, who coughed up the footy right on the line. The Broncos had only scored once off a scrum all season, but they made good here, as Farnworth and Ofahengae built space in front of the posts, before the backline headed left, where Boyd came close to assisting Jordan Riki over the line, and then finished the job himself.
Scooping the footy out of dummy half, Darius ducked away from O’Neill and used Holmes as leverage to reach out his right arm for the final try of his NRL career. This was a big boost for the Broncos, especially when Luke’s aim was true with the conversion, while the Cowboys needed some good luck – and got it at the end of their next set, when Maclean popped out a questionable offload that was saved by a Tom Dearden touch and then a knock-on from Patrick Carrigan right on the line.
Now it was North Queensland’s turn to get a scrum, as Drinkwater followed Boyd by focusing play on the left edge, where he earned his men a fresh set of six by tempting a high tackle from Jesse Arthars. Carrigan conceded a restart a play later, and the Cows reprised their accumulation of field position from eight minutes before, as Taumalolo surged at the posts and Maclean started a tight sweep to the right.
This time North Queensland had to do more with their field position – and Clifford seemed to know it, surging up the middle like a forward on the third, before Murray Taulagi collected a deft wraparound pass from Drinkwater on the fourth. Yet Drinkwater was locked up by Riki a moment later, as the Cows once again failed to capitalized. With the second quarter approaching, and two unanswered tries, it was starting to feel like this might just be Brisbane’s night, especially when they got two successive restarts early in their next set.
Taumalolo responded with just the big man effort the Cows needed, effecting a one-on-one strip on Arthars just as he was tumbling to the ground – clean as it was fast – that Clifford replicated at the tail end of Drinkwater’s next kick, when he slid the footy away from Boyd and fended off Coates to score beneath the crossbars. With Holmes adding the extras, this marked the start of a North Queensland resurgence that would eventually see them double Brisbane at 16-32, although it took them a little more time to fully settle into their groove.
Meanwhile, the Broncos hadn’t done accelerating, as Corey Oates put a spotty ball handling year behind him by reaching his hands high up in the air to collect the high ball in a scintillating AFL-style contest with Feldt, before running fifty metres in the fastest play so far. Brisbane maintained this momentum into their next defensive set, forcing Drinkwater to kick crossfield, on the first, from within the Cowboys’ twenty.
Only Coates reached it, lobbing it back inside where the Hammer caught it on the full and careened down the field for what would have been one of the best tries of the 2020 season – perhaps the best – if the Bunker hadn’t reversed the on-field call by pointing out that Tabuai-Fidow had been a metre offside. Brisbane had one last push when Farnworth crossed over off a nice pass from Boyd, but the try was denied due to an obstruction from Riki, while a further error from Jamil Hopoate set up North Queensland for two clinical tries to finally take the lead.
Both came at the end of right sweeps, and both came off assists from Holmes, who showcased his versatility with two very different passes. The first was a beautiful cut-out catch-and-pass from the ex-Jet to make Feldt the equal top tryscorer of 2020 with 17 four-pointers to his name. The second came off a superb short ball to O’Neill, who collected it at speed and barged through Farnworth and Dearden to slam it down three minutes out from the break.
In real time it looked like there might have been a second effort involved, but the Bunker ratified Atkins’ decision, bringing the Cowboys to a four point lead after Holmes kick – unluckily – ricocheted off the right upright. North Queensland let the first kick back bounce, and while Coates knocked it on, Boyd made up for it with a flashback to his fullback glory years, catching a Drinkwater ball on the full and bringing it back twenty metres at speed.
Both teams now went set for set for a few minutes, with Taulagi making a heroic effort to catch one of Clifford’s biggest bombs on his knees, and the Cowboys starting three successive sets on the left edge of the park. Feldt almost broke the deadlock with a near-linebreak that Arthars contained, and yet for a moment it looked like the visitors might continue his momentum on the left edge, only for the Hammer to be dragged into touch at the end of a promising sweep. Brisbane also seemed galvanised by the changed in place, searching and questioning the ruck on their following set, and gaining further traction when O’Neill was pinged for an escort on Farnworth.
Ben Te’o took the first run in front of the posts, Luke followed suit, and then the Broncos lost the footy on play three, when Drinkwater barged into Boyd just as he was passing to Oates, bringing down both men in the process and setting the Steeden free. All it took was an error from Alex Glenn to get the Cows some decent field position again, but they still hadn’t quite settled into first gear, as a rapid right play on the third ended with O’Neill held up in the corner, before Hopoate was contained on the fourth.
They came up with their best clutch sequence on the last, when Reuben Cotter was forced to offload right on the line, and Feldt slid to ground to bat it on for Clifford to grubber in goal, where Boyd had no choice but to collect it behind the uprights. In one of the biggest twists of the game, however, the Bunker correctly discerned that Clifford had stripped the footy from Boyd just before he took it over the dead ball line, with the slo-mo replay showing how dexterously Darius had kept his boot parallel to the chalk to force the error.
Brisbane really got rolling on the next set, as Coates broke through the line on the second play and kicked at speed, forcing Cotter to ground the ball in goal, as the Cows now lined up to defend the dropout they’d just expected to receive. The best period of the game now ensued for Brisbane, as Holmes risked going short, but instead swivelled the Steeden over the sideline to get the hosts another set of six from the ten.
Brisbane now recapitulated and condensed their opening two-try sequence into one final splendid burst of field position, as Luke steadied the play in front of the posts, Farnworth asked questions on the left, Carrigan straightened the attack, Haas drew in three defenders, and Boyd shaped to pass, only to send it off the right boot at the last second, trapping Feldt in goal for another Brisbane dropout.
Boyd seemed to be drawing on the best parts of his fifteen year playbook for this final farewell, so it felt right that the Broncos more or less scored on the next set, as Holmes booted it long, Arthars collected it, and Carrigan took the first tackle halfway up the park. Admittedly Haas spilled the Steeden a play later, but Brisbane got the ball back on the Cows’ second play, when Corey Jensen offloaded to Taumalolo, who had it stripped by Hopoate.
From there, Hoppa, sitting on the ground, popped it up to Coret Paix, with extensive Bunker scrutiny – the first all night for a try – providing he’d maintained possession, clearing Dearden to ran deep into the line and open up space for Oates to crash over in the corner. With Luke missing the conversion the match was all wrapped up at 16-16 with 25 minutes to go, as the Broncos now had their turn to watch the footy ricochet off the right post, despite a superb curve from Luke on the sideline.
Yet just as the Broncos had condensed their opening surge to this third try, so the Cows condensed their first stanza comeback to a brilliant final quarter here. They almost got their next try a few minutes later, when Holmes and Drinkwater linked out of the scrum to make room for Hammer on the left edge. The replay showed that the young winger’s boot had grazed the sideline as Coates came in for defence, and despite an offside penalty from Arthars, the Cowboys couldn’t do much with this surge in energy, wasting their Captain’s Challenge to contest an error from Cotter.
This was their last real misstep, however, since they finished off the night with a sublime trio of tries, starting with a pair from Feldt that put him two ahead of David Nofoaluma as the top tryscorer of the 2020 season. The first came off two beautiful long balls – a perfect controlled wide pass from Cotter out of dummy half, and then a superb spiraling effort from Drinkwater, who leaped to his feet to catch the footy in the air, and then shifted it out to his winger as Oates sailed above the turf in an attempt to get a hand to it.
This was perfect footy – geometric in its dexterity, and spectacular in its simplicity, especially in the final sequence, when Oates looked like a tangent destined to touch, but never contain, the curve of the Steeden as it bent inexorably towards Feldt. Drinkwater’s assist was just as good five minutes later, when he built on Taumaololo’s best run of the night to grubber at speed on the last for Feldt to time the bounce perfectly, and put down a hat trick to cement his dominance in 2020 tryscoring.
Holmes missed the conversion, but the Cowboys got more joy a couple of minutes later, when a short ball from Hopoate set up Coates for another kick at speed down the right sideline. North Queensland survived last time this happened, but this time they capitalised on it, and turned this sudden surge in momentum to their advantage, as holmes collected th footy, ran thirty-five metres through a staggered defensive line, and the sent it out for the Hammer to accelerate another forty-five metres to curve around untouched by the posts.
This was brilliant form for the young winger, and possibly Holmes’ best footwork since returning from the NFL, cementing the Broncos’ first wooden spoon as Gavin Cooper booted through the conversion for his last game in North Queensland colours. It was a pity, then, that he resorted to a shoulder charge in the final minute, throwing his contention for the Queensland Maroons in this year’s Origin fixture into serious doubt.
On the other side of the Steeden, this was a pretty dispiriting way for Brisbane to end the year, but not entirely unexpected. Like Newcastle a couple of years ago, the advantage of performing this poorly is that the only way it up – and as the Knights’ recent form has affirmed, these disastrous seasons can often prompt radical changes in form and approach that pay dividends further down the track. Nor can this result take away from Darius Boyd’s massive contribution to the game, or the legacy that we’ll lose now that he’s no longer a NRL fixture.