ROUND 18: North Queensland Cowboys v. Sydney Roosters (QCB Stadium, 17/7/21, 18-34)

The first game in the QCB tranche of the current COVID setup was one of the most exciting of Round 18 – a genuine arm-wrestle between the Cowboys and Roosters, who never quite maintained the upper hand until the end. Even with James Tedesco recovering from Origin, you would have expected a more consistent display from the Chooks here – while they had passages of scintillating brilliance, and scored a point per minute for most of the final quarter, this was still surprisingly close, with a 18-18 score lingering right down to the last ten minutes.

On the other side of the Steeden, this was also a game that featured sublime moments for North Queensland, including a pair of spectacular runs from Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Jake Granville that twice almost tipped the game back in the Cowboys’ favour during the critical closing passages. The Hammer, in particular, was clearly galvanised by his Maroons’ stint during the week, drawing on the Queensland win for some of his best ever passages at fullback, as the Roosters sweated in the 28-degree heat while snow fell just outside Sydney.

Jared Waerea-Hargreaves took the first run and then dragged three defenders three metres three tackles later, while Kyle Feldt did well under Sam Walker’s first kick, leaping up in the sunny corner of the stadium to collect it on the full. Scott Drinkwater responded with the first torpedo, taken by Joey Manu, before Walker booted it to the same corner of the field, where Tabuai-Fidow stood his ground in the face of an extra aggressive kick chase from Billy Smith, who was clearly keen to make up for lost time with his only second NRL game in two years.

The Cowboys got six again midway through their next set, off a Nat Butcher error, and Drinkwater capitalised immediately, scooting out of dummy half, swerving left, fending off Matt Ikuvalu with his right palm, and flicking the footy out to Javid Bowen with his right. Bowen was just as good, dummying to the left to force Manu to commit to the wing, before curving around to score behind the posts, setting up Drinkwater for an easy first conversion.

That said, the Cows didn’t apply too much pressure on the restart, ending with a Drinkwater kick that Manu took cleanly, while Daniel Tupou got the Roosters rolling with an offload back to his fullback early in the tackle count. Drew Hutchison took the next kick, and followed Walker by targeting the left corner, where the Hammer and Smith collided in the air. The original call was knock on for Smith, and it remained after a Sydney City Captain’s Challenge.

For a moment this galvanised the Cowboys into their fastest passage of play – a flick pass from Bowen that opened up space for Murrau Taulagi up the left edge. Taulagi couldn’t quite manage the speed, allowing Ikuvalu to bump him over the sideline, although the Cows got the ball back almost immediately, when Sitili Tupouniua succumbed to a low tackle from Bowen. Yet Drinkwater lost it just as quickly thanks to big pressure from Hutchison, ending the messiest period of the game so far in terms of ball handling, discipline and changeovers.

That also made it one of the most precarious periods for both teams, as the next sequence hung in the balance, available for whoever could get their house in order. Tupouniua almost lost a second ball on the next set – a no-look pass from JWH – and the Hammer came up with a similar clutch effort under the high ball, collecting it in goal but reaching out under Manu and Ikuvalu to just ground it back in the field of play. With two successive six agains, off ruck errors from Manu and Tupouniua, the Cows reclaimed some field position – and delivered.

This was another terrific long-range effort – a more streamlined version of the previous try – as Drinkwater once again took a run up the middle, poking his nose through the line and offloading on the ground out of a Sam Walker tackle. The Hammer received it, channelling his Maroons energy by storming up the left edge, and outpacing Manu to cross over untouched, before Drinkwater added a superb sideline conversion to make it twelve unanswered points.

Francis Molo unceremoniously dumped Victor Radley on his back to get the restart going, and Tom Dearden broke through the line on tackle two, throwing a big dummy to the left only to slip over and lose the footy as he was approaching Manu. This was the shift the Roosters needed, and while JWH popped an offload back to Walker early in the count, Walker mistimed his grubber, not even getting it over the line, meaning that Dearden had enough space to withstand a big Roosters pack effort and mirror the Hammer by narrowly avoiding a dropout.

Manu was forced to take the next kick, and followed his halves by targeting the left edge, where the Hammer and Smith had their most volatile contest in the air. This had been the worst and least characteristic Roosters set so far, so they had to regather next time they had ball in hand. Instead, Walker slipped over, as the second quarter arrived, although the Chooks got a lucky break when the Hammer didn’t quite get his boot back for a twenty-metre restart.

Again, JWH popped out a high offload early in the tackle count, this time to Radley, although Dearden prevented it becoming the platform for a break up the left edge with a terrific legs tackle on Tupou. Finally, a few sets later, the Roosters got a much-needed penalty, when Shane Wright was put on report for a dangerous tackle on Sam Verrills after Jason Taumalolo failed to get there first. JWH took the first carry as Lachlan Lam flicked a second ball back off the park, and Manu settled his men with a big forward-like surge into the line on the second.

Tackle by tackle, you could see the Chooks consolidating here, and sure enough it all came together on the last, when Hutchison opted to run the ball, flicking it out for Angus Crichton to bump off Feldt and slam through the Hammer to score on his first touch of the footy. Walker shanked his first kick from the left sideline, but this was still a critical rallying-point for the Roosters, even if Radley spilled it forward before they got halfway through their restart.

The Cows were in the red zone by tackle three, as Taumalolo stepped into the spotlight – first with a terrific flick offload back to Robson, then with a pass for Coen Hess to pivot off the right boot. JWH conceded a penalty a moment later, for holding down, and yet this ushered in one of the real defensive successes for the Roosters, as the Cowboys swept it from side to side, JWH made a superb trysaving tackle on Mitch Dunn, and Walker scrambled to bring the kick back into the field of play, burrowing into the turf to avoid a North Queensland dropout.

Buoyed up by this defensive display, the Roosters had a kind of delayed post-try restart now, cruising up the park through a pair of ruck errors from Lemuelu and Hess. Manu may have made an unnecessary offload right on the line, and popped it straight back to the defence, and the Cowboys may have got a restart of their own on the next set, but it felt like the Roosters had enough momentum in the bank to score on their next carry it they got focused.

That’s just what happened, as Tupou saved an awkward Walker pass that bounced out to the left edge, the Cowboys got a touch, and the Chooks had a fresh set in the North Queensland ten. They only needed a single play, as Smith finally won the battle of the left corner, receiving the footy a few metres out, plunging through a low tackle from the Hammer, and running the same tough line he took during the set-up for Crichton’s opening four-pointer, before brushing off Dearden as last line of defence to make it 12-10 once Walker converted.

Crichton had his most restless run so far on the restart, dancing across the defence and bumping off a sequence of Cowboys before Hutchison floated it all the way to the North Queensland line. The hosts needed to head to the break without conceding more points – with the lead – but they didn’t get any joy with a Captain’s Challenge to contest an illegal strip from Wright, paving the way for the last bout of Sydney possession, and a last try before the sheds.

Walker withstood a Drinkwater tackle to make metres for Morris up the right edge, then sent it back to the other side of the pass, where Tupou saved another tricky pass, digging his boots in to avoid being dragged into touch. There were fifty seconds left on the clock, and it looked like the Chooks needed a repeat a set here to score, only for Manu to execute a carbon copy of Smith’s try on the left edge, where he received a Hutchison pass, dummied left, danced over a low tackle from the Hammer, and broke through Dearden to put down another four.

Walker didn’t convert, but the Roosters still had the lead for the first time, while the sheer similarity to Smith’s try, and the fact of Manu putting down points as stand-in fullback, was a good motivator heading into the break. The Cows responded with a left spread to start their first set back – a high-risk play that came apart when Lemuelu poked his nose through the line and went for a one-handed offload that Tupou managed to scoop up for early position.

North Queensland had succumbed to three repeat Roosters sets so far, but they held on here, as Walker sent the kick too hard, giving Drinkwater time to usher it into touch for seven tackles. The Cows didn’t do much with the next set, but they did well to slow down the play-the-ball, keeping the Chooks bunched in their own end and forcing Walker to kick within the forty. Still, the Tricolours survived the next North Queensland set, and so we looked set for one of the more evenly-paced periods of the game – until a big brainsnap from the Hammer.

It came at the end of a Hutchison kick down the left, where Tabuai-Fidow should have let it dribble into touch for a scrum. Instead, he played it, setting up another close-range Sydney set, and one of the most dramatic contests in goal – a two-on-two clash that saw Tupou miss the footy, Feldt try to bump it into touch, and then scoop it up and make his way back into the field of play, only to get his left boot to the right sideline under big pressure from Smith.

A Walker obstruction halted the repeat set at tackle three, although the Cows didn’t do much with the advantage, despite restless linebreak attempts from Hess and Drinkwater. The Roosters now had 56 tackles in the opposition half, and 21 in the twenty, compared to 27 and 19, so they had to take control of this messy period to have any chance of restoring the rhythm they’d built before the break. Manu also had to lead from fullback, and he did a good job with two big carries on the next set – a hard run to start and an offload midway through.

Even so, the Cows got the next big chance, when all the pressure they’d been applying on Ikuvalu paid off. He spilled the ball into a Dearden-Drinkwater kick-chase comb, Crichton infringed the ruck, and North Queensland had their first real attacking opportunity of the second half. They lost some momentum on tackle two, when Feldt took a few seconds to return groggily to his feet, but Taumaolo got them rolling again with a run into Radley, while Ikuvalu started to recover some joy by taking an errant Jake Granville pass on the left edge.  

The Cowboys still got the scrum feed, since the footy touched Walker’s fingertips first, and yet the next passage was all Ikuvalu, who was more successful on the left edge a tackle later, when he came in to deflect a Granville catch-and-pass out to Taulagi, before breaking through the line on his next carry. Unfortunately, the North Queensland hooker landed awkwardly on his right knee, and had to be taken off the park with a possible ACL complication, bringing Peter Hola onto the field after the longest pause of the game, as the medicab came and went.

Ikuvalu’s run seemed to spook Wright, who was pinged for a dangerous tackle late in the count, ushering in what looked like a pretty promising Sydney City set – a trio of big runs up the middle, and a superb Tupouniua-Walker offload right on the line, through a massive North Queensland pack. Yet the Hammer now channelled the previous set, when he had almost broken through on the right corner, into a terrific tackle on Walker, rattling the footy free in what might have been a momentum-changer if Granville didn’t flick it into Manu on play two.  

Finally, on the cusp of the fourth quarter, the Roosters scored another try – the first points since the break – ushering in the torrent of points they’d been searching for all game (and should have really achieved before now, even without Tedesco). They’d put down twenty in the next twenty, starting here with a pair of massive charges – first from Verrills, who forced a restart after the Cows scrambled to clear the ruck right on the line, and then from Isaac Liu, who came in hard and fast beneath the crossbar, almost barging through Hess and Robson.

Radley diverted this energy ninety degrees, popping a bullet ball out to Walker, who responded with a harbour bridge pass to Ikuvalu, who had been galvanised ever since his loose carry, and completed his comeback here. Receiving the footy right on the sideline, he nevertheless managed to dance around Taulagi, eventually leaping into open space and curving around his defender to get the ball down cleanly – such a spectacular try it didn’t matter that Walker didn’t convert, keeping the Roosters hungry as they got into their restart.

Yet the Cowboys weren’t done either, as the Hammer and Dearden now congealed the spine with a series of sublime plays – as selfless as they were spectacular – that very nearly shifted the last fifteen minutes back in North Queensland’s direction. The Hammer effectively disposed of the entire restart by collecting the kick within his own ten, bumping off Morris, getting inside Liu and Tupouniua, and sailing for the left corner, making it a full ninety metres before Manu and Tupounoia brought him down – and all without seeming to break a sweat.

Taking the tackle here, and even decelerating into the tackle, was the selfless option, since it opened up space for a rapid play-the-ball and an equally rapid shift to the other side of the park, where Dearden found himself with the footy. He might have gone it alone, or accepted the catharsis of the tackle, but he followed his fullback with the selfless move – popping it out to Dunn, and then receiving a scintillating offload back from Dunn, before feeding it back inside to assist Robson with a try beneath the crossbar that set up an easy Drinkwater kick.

Watching this superb sequence was like witnessing a team rediscover its power as a team, so the game genuinely hung in the balance here, with Drinkwater’s kick locking it up at 18-18. To their credit, the Chooks would eventually eclipse this superb spectacle, but only by scoring a point per minute for the remainder of the match. They didn’t shift the momentum immediately, though, as the Cows got through a terrific restart, bolstered by a bullocking run up the middle from Jordan McLean, while Ikuvalu fumbled the high ball to concede six more.

The tipping-point came on the next tackle, when Tupou intercepted Tamualolo, who made the odd decision to sweep it out to the right edge instead of running at the line himself. Play paused at the end of the subsequent set as Lemuelu was taken off the park for an HIA, so by the time Hutchison took his kick Feldt was in position to casually collect it. McLean took another charge as shards of fractured afternoon light elongated across QCB Stadium, but this time Verrills was ready for him, coming in low to prevent any significant post-contact metres.

The Roosters got flamboyant on both sides of the park on their next set, from an Ikuvalu-Walker offload on the right, to a harbour bridge ball from Crichton that found Tupou, who in turn offloaded back to Smith. They couldn’t parlay that energy into a last-tackle play, though,  as Ikuvalu took the high ball on the full, only to knock on under pressure from Taulagi, but they delivered on the next set, thanks to a slow play-fast play that finally got them into first gear.

The slow play came from Manu, who skidded around a few defenders, bumped off a few more, and then stood for an eternity in a Robson ankle tap, drawing in the North Queensland defence before Walker responded with a bullet ball out to Tupouniua on the left edge. With half the defence still focused on Manu, and the other half exhausted or out of position, Tupouniua was able to crash over untouched, running straight past Taulagi and curving around behind the crossbar to set up Walker for his easiest conversion of the game thus far.

This was the first really decimating try of the game, so it felt like the Roosters might also score the first back-to-back tries here, especially since Radley followed Manu by defying a North Queensland ankle tap, leaping over Hess instead of opting to stand in the tackle. Instead, Verrills lobbed it forward late in the count, and Granville almost reprised the Hammer’s run with a mad charge down the middle that forced Manu into his biggest tackle of the afternoon.

Yet Granville’s run was almost as remunerative as the Hammer’s, forcing the Roosters to really scramble as they conceded three restarts in quick succession – from Crichton, Liu and Walker – before Drinkwater smashed over the line on the right edge. There was no doubt that the North Queensland five-eighth got the footy down, but the replay cleared showed Hutchison’s tackle was complete, making it a double movement – the biggest let-off all game.

To their credit, the Roosters capitalised on it, channelling this sudden cascade of Cowboys possession into a try on their very next set, as Radley’s next big run up the middle turned into a fully-fledged linebreak. This time he completely eluded Hess, only coming down for Granville, but parlaying his incredible speed into a rapid play-the-ball that set up Walker for a try out of dummy half – potentally the match-winning try, with five and a half minutes left.

There was still room here for one more North Queensland comeback if they could dig into Hammer and Granville’s splendid runs, and true to the spirit of the game it was a struggle to the death, when Ikuvalu mirrored Manu with a try right on the siren. It came straight out of the scrum, as Manu fended off Drinkwater and popped it across for Morris to assist his no. 5, who didn’t have to contend with any real defence as he put it down untouched in the corner.

Smith had a shot at his first NRL goal after the siren, and sent it too shallow, but this couldn’t diminish such a memorable Roosters win – all the more special because it was so surprisingly precarious at key moments. Although they don’t have a major challenge next week against the Knights, especially given Newcastle’s loss to the Storm, they’ll still be looking for a more consistent result with Teddy back on the field, while on the other side of the Steeden the Cows will be keen to build further on the Hammer’s brilliance when they host Melbourne.

About Billy Stevenson (589 Articles)
Massive NRL fan, passionate Wests Tigers supporter with a soft spot for the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs and a big follower of US sports as well.

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