The Roosters had only won two of their last nine games at Suncorp when they hosted the Cowboys for the third game of Magic Round on Saturday night, but you would still have expected them to come away with more than a fourteen point win. In fact, the Cows were strong for key passages of the game, dominating the middle third, in particular, with three straight tries, while also effectively plugging the two sustained periods of Sydney City scoring, in the opening quarter and back of the second half.
The Tricolours’ victory came, in part, off a pretty controversial encounter between James Tedesco and Lachlan Burr that paved the way for a sin bin that sealed the deal – a frustrating way for North Queensland to mark Jason Taumalolo’s 200th match. But it was also a testament to the Roosters’ arsenal, with Sitili Tupouniua returning from suspension in the second row, Victor Radley and Sam Walker cleared to play after their HIA and shoulder issues, and Lachlan Lam in at 5/8 with Drew Hutchison off the park.
The Roosters started the game at the wrong end of the field, so Jared Waerea-Hargreaves had to run the length of the park to get in place at kick receiver. Their woes continued on kickoff, when Kyle Feldt bent the bounce around Tupouniua, who never had a chance of collecting it on the full, and was forced to watch it careen at a crazy angle over the sideline. The Cowboys now had their first set in the Roosters’ twenty, but couldn’t break through this first test of the home team’s goal line defence.
Tedesco did well to bring the kick back over the line, and avoid a dropout, but the Cowboys came up with an enormous pack effort on tackle one, as Reece Robson drew in three other defenders, including Taumalolo, to drag Daniel Tupou in goal from five metres out. Teddy went long with the kick, but Matt Ikuvalu still conceded a second dropout on the fourth play, catching a Jake Clifford on the bounce, on the left wing, to avoid a North Queensland try, and so forcing Teddy to boot through a second long one.
The Chooks now got their first touch of the footy, and their first let off, with a one-on-one steal from Joey Manu on Coen Hess. JWH fed a terrific offload to Victor Radley, and Teddy synced up with Sam Walker, before Radley started a deft left sweep that ended with Josh Morris putting Tupou across in the corner for a classic Tricolours try. The interim passes from Lachlan Lam and Tedesco were beautifully timed, while the Giraffe got two boots down right beside the line for his closest four-pointer this year.
Walker missed the conversion, but the Roosters had still reasserted their dominance after the Cowboys’ opening burst of field position. They got six again on their next set, and Walker opened up space for Radley midway through the tackle count, receiving the ball back from his hooker to score beside the posts for his first try in his home state. You couldn’t have asked for a better testament to Walker’s running game, which had already been impressive, despite his ankle injury against Parra at Bankwest last week.
The Roosters had now scored on 2/3 sets, and despite two opening dropouts from the Cowboys, so it looked like we might be in for a torrent of Tricoloured points if North Queensland didn’t manage to rally rapidly here. Walker was always going to add the extras from this angle, so his men were almost a point per minute at 10-0, and didn’t show any signs of slowing down on the restart, as Tupouniua and Isaac Liu added decent post-contact metres, and Lam delivered a strong kick on the final tackle.
Scott Drinkwater’s next kick was probably the most dangerous so far – a spiraling bomb that looked set to go over Teddy’s head only for him to bend backwards and collect it right in front of his nose. Walker followed with another good run on the last, albeit shorter – a big left-foot step to get away from Ben Condon. This disheveled the North Queensland line enough for Tedesco to almost catch the kick on the full, ten metres out from the line, but the first bounce defied him, giving the Cows time to contain him.
Meanwhile, Hess was flagged for an HIA, but didn’t leave the park, for Lachlan Burr, until the end of the next North Queensland defensive set, in which he played a considerable part. A moment later, the visitors got their first real chance since the opening minutes, when Teddy knocked back a Drinkwater kick and the tackle count restarted. Burr inserted himself into the play immediately, Taumaolo charged at the crossbar, and Drinkwater garnered a third dropout with a grubber to the left edge.
Ikuvalu actually managed to bring it back over the line, but three defenders maintained the momentum to drag him in goal again, as the Cows got a flashback to the opening minutes as the first quarter came to an end. Once again they got back-to-back dropouts, as Clifford kicked on play two, forcing Teddy to take it over the dead ball line for another set. This was a victory of sorts, but you still had to wonder why Clifford had kicked with Tedesco clearly in position, instead of leaving time for a try opportunity.
Burr mistimed an offload on tackle two, and while the Cowboys contained it, they appeared to have lost momentum – until Taumalolo made a mad burst at the line on play four. Liu missed the ankle tap, and Tupouniua wrapped himself around big Jason’s waist, rattling the footy free, after putting in the shot of the night so far on Jordan Maclean. This was goal line defence at its best from the Roosters, who were nearly steeled into their best try, off a two-man strip from Dunn and Burr on Crichton.
It played out as a fragmented and recovered left sweep, as Walker fed the footy to Lam, who lost it when Clifford knocked on, only for Teddy to scoop in and flick it back to Morris. From there, Josh scooped it up and barged past a couple of defenders, for what would have been the classiest four points for Sydney City if the replay hadn’t showed that Clifford had ricocheted the ball back into Lam’s arm, making this a double knock-on – a pity, since this was a classic instance of the Chooks’ ability to self-correct.
Still, the Roosters had another set, and Walker got them rolling with a harbour bridge ball out to the right wing that Murray Taulagi had to really scramble to contain. Walker had another terrific run across the face of the ruck on play three, and gained his men a dropout with a deft chip that Feldt tapped back before Holmes knocked it over the dead ball line to be completely safe. In the contest, Feldt copped both of Tupou’s knees in the back, but he was good to go as Holmes booted through his first dropout kick.
After North Queensland had failed to capitalise on four successive dropouts, Ikuvalu crashed over on tackle four here, receiving the footy after a pair of silky efforts from Walker and Lam that set him up to get on the outside of Drinkwater without coming close to the sideline – at least until the very moment of the putdown, which wouldn’t have happened if the preceding passes hadn’t been so silky and precise. Walker wasn’t having a great night with the conversions though, making it 1/3 to keep it at 14-0.
Feldt sent the kickoff out on the full, and the Roosters got their restart at the North Queensland thirty, as Tupouniua barged into the defence at a thirty degree angle, and Crichton came up with the hardest, fastest and simplest Sydney City try of the season. Collecting the footy from Lam fifteen metres out, he simply ran hard at the line, barging into Connelly Lemuelu and Feldt like a forward taking a hit-up midway up the park, and relying on sheer strength to bump them off and get the footy down for another four.
Once again, though, Walker missed the conversion, begging the question of whether the Chooks needed to resort to another kicker to make this torrent of tries as damaging as possible. On the other side of the Steeden, the Cowboys needed a big momentum-shifter – and they got it ten minutes out from the break, when Tupouniua was put on report and copped ten minutes in the bin for a careless high tackle on Burr. Worse, Radley and Manu now conceded two restarts, making a second sin bin a real possibility.
The Roosters didn’t get down to eleven men, but the Cowboys did score on this first set without Tupouniua, as Drinkwater spun out of a tackle from Walker and sent a cut-out pass across to Javid Bowen for a try on the wing. Holmes has converted at 77%, but had his worst kick of the year here, careening the Steeden towards the other sideline from the moment it left the tee. Still, the Cows had scored immediately on this first sting without Sitili, while the Roosters got a formal warning about the restarts.
The visitors scored again on the very next set, making for their frustrated pair of back-to-back dropouts with back-to-back tries here. Reece Robson was the key playmaker, coming up with best dummy half sequence of the night as he threw the dummy to beat Radley, and drew in Tedesco, before turning Drinkwater from assister to tryscorer, right beside the posts. Holmes booted through the second conversion of the game, and all of a sudden the Cowboys had appropriated the Roosters’ superb opening flow.
It was paramount, then, that the Chooks stay staunch in defence over the last three minutes, since with another converted try North Queensland would have reduced eighteen unanswered points to a two-point deficit. Instead, Clifford garnered their fifth dropout, trapping Morris behind the line before Teddy sent it a bit shorter this time. For a moment it looked like the Cows might go three in a row with a Holmes pass to Taulagi, but Tedesco, Manu and Ikuvalu were absolutely committed in cover defence.
Finally, with one minute on the clock, the Roosters got their last set before the break, winding down the clock before Tupouniua returned two seconds into the second half, albeit not without a late forward pass from Walker with sixteen seconds left to go. Francis Molo took the first tackle back, Taumalolo racked up about seven post-contact metres on the second, and Holmes broke through Walker and into open space on the third, shifting it at the thirty to Drinkwater, who crossed over untouched for a double.
The Cowboys had now scored three tries in the last eleven minutes of play, and made a big statement with six points fifty seconds into this second stanza, once Holmes booted it through from right in front. Yet these would be the last points they scored all night, as the Roosters recovered from this blip in the middle of the game to reassert their dominance in the back half. That said, Tom Gilbert almost made a bust on the restart, and the tackle count restarted when Ikuvalu failed to get Drinkwater’s bomb.
Things now accelerated on the right edge, where Crichton was pinged for a high shot, and the Cows opted to take the two – a weird decision, so they had the momentum behind them for another try, and had enough wind up Sydney City to force another error and sin bin if they played it right too. Instead, Holmes lined up the tee on the right sideline, and followed his first conversion attempt by veering the footy away from the posts, keeping it a two-point game as his men got stuck into yet another set.
Ikavalu resumed some Sydney City momentum on the last tackle, not only collecting Drinkwater’s grubber right on the line but carrying it thirty metres to get his team some much-needed fielded position. Teddy was restless on the next set, searching for opportunities along the ruck, and disheveling the defence until Shane Wright was tempted into a hand in the play. Walker glimpsed a massive hole on the left edge two tackles later, and while it closed just as quickly, Manu found space on the other side.
This sequence was a real testament to the Roosters’ ability to shift from side to side, as Manu received a sublime catch-and-pass from Teddy, shaped right, and dodged his way through three defenders. There was a brief question of whether or not he had got the footy down, but in the most anticlimactic moment so far it emerged that the knock-on had come right back at the start of the play, when Ben Marschke fumbled the play-the-ball. Luckily for him, the replay also showed Manu losing it on his way to ground.
Teddy was superb beneath Clifford’s next bomb, and even better midway through the tackle count, when he broke into space halfway up the park and made his way to the North Queensland twenty, fending off Feldt and coming to ground beneath a Holmes ankle tap, but not without popping the footy back to Crichton at the very moment he landed on his back. Crichton reached out one hand for the ball and gathered it in two, finishing the scintillating sequence with an untouched – and unconverted – four points.
Keighran had taken over kicking duties, and had as much difficulty from the sideline as Walker, but it didn’t matter much in the wake of Teddy’s incredible run, which looked great in slow motion, but also looked as if it was unfolding in slow motion in real motion, so leisurely did the world’s greatest fullback take stock of the play, dummying casually to the right as he faced Feldt and Holmes before deciding to take it to the North Queensland twenty – a claim to Blues fullback in the face of Turbo’s resurgence.
It was frustrating, then, when Tupouniua knocked on the kickoff, since the Roosters looked set to produce something equally spectacular with their restart. The Cows didn’t do much with the changeover, though, not even getting to a Drinkwater kick before the Tricolours regained possession. Clifford was restless to make up for it with a run up the right on the next set, but Manu didn’t have any problem collecting the footy on the last, and taking the quick tap to get his men accelerating once again.
We had the first Captain’s Challenge of the game at the end of the next set, when Drinkwater charged down Lam’s kick, and then landed on the footy for what was initially deemed a knock-on. The replay showed Lam pushing him on the back before he got to the football, and so the Cowboys got their second let-off in as many minutes, following Tupouniua’s knock-on, as a potential Roosters scrum feed turned into a North Queensland set – and JWH and Radley looked on concerned from the sideline.
Slowly but surely, the Cowboys were increasing their tackles within the Roosters’ twenty, at 17 to 37, but they had one of their worst set conclusions here, as Drinkwater mistimed the wide pass to the right edge on the last tackle. Clifford couldn’t leap high enough to get it, and so Lemuelu was forced to kick from the wing, ferrying it straight into Manu’s chest. On the other side of the Steeden, Lam was determined to get the kick right this time with a soaring bomb that covered half the length of the park.
The Roosters were making a habit of big runs on play one, as Tupou now almost broke into open space, before the Cowboys rallied some of their best cover defence of the night to prevent Teddy sending Morris over a couple of plays later. Now Sydney City opted for a Captain’s Challenge on the back of a Lam kick, to question whether Liu had actually knocked on the high ball into Holmes as they both contested it in the air. They weren’t as fortunate, though, since the replay clearly showed Liu making the error.
You could tell Tedesco was starting to get frustrated with the on-field decisions, while the Roosters at a whole were slightly more unsettled than usual, aware that they only had a converted try lead with eighteen minutes on the clock. Their last try had been spectacular, but they’d lost a couple of big opportunities to escalate it into a sublime tryscoring sequence, meaning this last quarter was starting to resemble the middle third, when the Cowboys had been pretty effective at keeping them off the scoreboard.
Things got worse for Teddy when he was knocked down by Burr a moment later – or supposedly knocked down, since he appeared to make the contact with the head himself, or at least drastically exaggerate it, as he collapsed into the big no. 15, who was sent to the bin for the ten minutes that ended up deciding the game. Meanwhile, Teddy only came off for the briefest of seconds, as the Roosters used their free interchange to take Butcher off and Radley on, via Tedesco’s head injury exemption.
This was technically within the rules of the game, but hardly within the spirit – a testament to the Roosters’ growing sense of desperation over these last fifteen minutes, as the Cowboys absorbed the brunt of Teddy and Crichton’s breakaway try. Keighran made it an eight point lead with a penalty goal on the back of Burr’s infringement, and Holmes showed his mettle, with twelve men on the park, by scooping up the next last-tackle kick and showing he could accelerate on play one too.
He was unable to make the big metres the Roosters backline had managed at the start of their tackle counts, but this was still a statement of intent from a North Queensland effort smarting from the farce of Burr’s sin bin. The Cowboys were pretty staunch in defence as well, mirroring their pack effort on Morris a few minutes before with an even bigger effort to prevent Ikuvalu crossing on the back of a sublime Manu flick pass on the other side of the field. This drove Clifford into his best bomb on the next set.
The Cows also contained a big play up the left edge from Sydney City, which started with Morris grubbering for himself, and ended with Walker flicking it back to Clifford. For a moment it looked like they might not concede any tries with Burr in the bin, and the fact they went so long was a testament to their defensive resolve, but as the ten minute came to an end, Morris collected the footy from Teddy, got on the outside of Feldt’s shoulder, and shot it across for Tupou to score without a Cowboy touching him.
Walker was back on kicking duties, and made up for his botched pass with the last conversion of the night, as well as his first two points from the sideline. Despite a final dropout, the Roosters didn’t have any more tries in them, and so came away with a slightly more precarious win than they might have expected. They’ll be keen for the competition points when they host the Broncos back in Sydney next week, while the Cowboys will be looking to draw on their middle third here when they host the Knights.