ROUND 20: Brisbane Broncos v. North Queensland Cowboys (Suncorp Stadium, 30/7/21, 37-18)
Friday night’s game in Brisbane was the very definition of a perfect local derby – an arm-wrestle between fourteenth and fifteenth that was as barnstorming as the Wests Tigers’ loss to the Warriors was lacklustre. Brodie Croft has been back in the no. 7 jersey for three weeks now, and has played a critical role in Brisbane’s momentum. They won over the Sharks, had a strong fifty minutes against the Tigers, and even gave the Panthers a run for their money, so they were in good form to come away with a definitive win over the Cowboys at Suncorp.
Tyson Gamble was also outstanding, creating options all over the park, and booting through a field goal under extreme pressure. Add to that Payne Haas, who only had 46 metres against the Panthers last week, despite averaging 160 a game (more than any other front-rower in the competition), but who easily topped the VB Hard Earned Index here, coming away with over 150 run metres and over 65 after contact. Just to add to the drama, Tom Dearden scored against the club that rejected him, while we had another field goal conclusion after Round 9.
The win was all the more cathartic for Brisbane in that they’d been 18-12 with five to go during that earlier clash, only for Taumalolo to take it down the middle, and Valentine Holmes to boot through the one-pointer. Yet the Cowboys also had some bad luck tonight as well – a denied try from Kyle Feldt at the start of the final quarter, despite Bunker footage that seemed to clearly show him keeping consistent contact with the fingertips. This effectively neutered North Queensland, preventing them from galvanising into just one more comeback.
Jordan McLean took the first carry of the night, and then the fourth, while Herbie Farnworth did well to avoid a knock-on and then almost sent Corey Oates into space up the left edge. Tyson Gamble’s kick was a spinner, but Jake Granville continued to be safe in his second stint at fullback since 2011, although Scott Drinkwater’s kick didn’t pose any problems for Tesi Niu. The Broncos got the first restart off a Connelly Lemuelu error, and Drinkwater made up for the lost field position with twenty on the return, despite a good tap-back from Kotoni Staggs.
Granville was just as good in attack at the end of the next set, driving the ball deep and forcing Oates to collect it low, with the very tips of his fingers, right on the Brisbane line. Even better, Granville saved the first big Broncos play midway through the following set, when Croft kicked early, the footy ricocheted off Tom Dearden, and Alex Glenn stormed in to toe it forward again. Granville scooped it up, and made fifteen metres before feeding it out to Drinkwater, gaining the first penalty when Gamble scrambled with an illegal strip on the subsequent play.
The Cows had the first tryscoring opportunity when Reece Robson attempted to assist Murray Taulagi on the line, but he mistimed the pass, meaning Taulagi could only get his right hand to it before knocking on. North Queensland had received the first penalty of the game, only to concede the first error, so the Broncos had a shot at reabsorbing the visitors’ momentum if they could consolidate here. Jordan Riki got them rolling with the first big run of the night, busting through a couple of tackles to get Gamble in position for a clutch kick from ten out.
Kane Bradley leaped up to try and contain it a metre out, but could only knock it back to Drinkwater, who merely got a hand to it. The Steeden landed in goal, where Jamayne Isaako appeared to have ground it, and while the try was sent upstairs to see whether Isaako had knocked on, it turned out Staggs had been a little too diligent in attack, and had made the fumble earlier in the sequence when he was contesting the two North Queensland defenders.
Yet Riki’s run was too good not to produce points, as the Broncos used the repeat set to simply refine and consolidate this last tryscoring attempt. Gamble grubbered from the ten, his opposing five-eighth halfheartedly reached out a boot to try and deflect it, and Isaako simply ran faster and harder than Bradley to chase down the footy and ground it. Isaako may have sailed the conversion kick across the front of the uprights, but this capacity to self-correct so quickly and seamlessly was a big motivator for the Broncos at this early point in the evening.
The Cowboys survived the restart, and were at the halfway mark by tackle three of their next set, meaning Niu had to field Dearden’s kick five metres out from his own line. Croft responded by dummying and almost breaking through the line midway through the following set, and for a moment it looked like North Queensland might get the game back to a set-for-set rhythm, since they were currently just dominating possession with 51% of the football.
Yet Dearden lost the momentum with his poorest kick on the next set – before the last, halfway up the park, and directly to Oates, who took it as if he was always the intended target. Brisbane immediately capitalised on this field position, settling into their first right sweep, as Isaako drew on Riki’s run with a terrific dash towards the sideline. This was also the first great footwork of the night, as Isaako headed for the right wing only to dodge back inside in the face of Taulagi and Drinkwater, making it all the way to the thirty where he booted it at speed.
We were now treated to one of the most spectacular plays of the last few weeks, as a sea of Broncos and Cowboys converged on the footy in the middle of the field. Niu kicked it backwards in the midst of that scramble, and Kobe Hetherington took it on the full, right on the ground, a beautiful collect from a middle forward. Even better, he seized the moment with a cut-out pass to Alex Glenn, who shut down this week’s media speculation about his career by shaping for the left wing, defying Kyle Feldt, and outpacing Lemuelu to go it alone.
The Cows needed a sudden shift – and they got it when Keenan Palasia tried to offload early in the restart. Dearden intercepted it, and Oates tried to hit back by intercepting a Drinkwater pass a few plays later. Instead, he missed it, injured himself, and conceded six again, as McLean got his men rolling by driving it deep into the defence, and garnering another restart by tempting a Haas ruck error. Jason Taumalolo offloaded right in front of the posts two plays later, and Granville responded with a half-offload, half-fumble that risked ending the attack.
Instead, Haas was pinged for an offside, and North Queensland settled into the toughest goal line attack of the game – Taumalolo on the left, Mitch Dunn on the right, McLean in front of the posts. It all came together on play four, with a risky pass from Drinkwater back out to Granville on the left edge. The stand-in fullback now mirrored Glenn’s try beautifully, pulling in the footy and parlaying the awkward catch into a big dummy that defied the Brisbane defence, leaving him with nothing to do but duck under a Gamble tackle to put down four.
It wouldn’t be a Queensland derby without more twists, though, and the Cows didn’t even get a whiff of their restart now, as Molo lost the footy into a bone-rattling Riki hit on play one. Brisbane consolidated clinically, scoring their next points off an effortless right sweep – Gamble to Staggs, who swerved away from Taulagi and Bradley, and danced over Drinkwater without even having to consider Isaako as a last option on the wing. Isaako still got his moment though, booting through the extras to put the Broncos quadruple the Cows at 16-4.
North Queensland survived the restart, and bounced back just as quickly – and just in case it wasn’t personal enough already, Dearden scored the next four against the club that told him his service wasn’t required any more two months ago. It came off a Drinkwater bomb that found the ground twenty metres out from the Brisbane line. Isaako leaped up beneath it, but couldn’t contain it in the face of a Bradley-Taulagi contest, spilling it back infield, where Daejarn Asi collected it on the bounce and extemporised with a wide ball in to his halfback.
Dearden looked set to score from the moment he took it, getting on the outside of Croft, and disposing of him with a determined fend, while Oates looked like he was taking a nap as he slid in for the last-ditch ankle tap, allowing Dearden to put it down right beneath the crossbar. Just to add to the drama, the Bunker scrutinised the early stages of this sequence to see whether Taulagi or Bradley had knocked the footy on as they did battle with Isaako. It was all good, the try was ratified, Drinkwater converted and we were back to a converted try game.
This was classic derby footy, with five tries in sixteen minutes, and while the Broncos survived the restart, the Cowboys didn’t show any signs of slowing down. Robson and Tamalolo dragged Niu back ten metres – back inside his own ten metre line – on tackle two of the next Brisbane set, and Taumalolo continued that punishing defence on the following play, linking up with Coen Hess this time to force a fumbled play-the-ball from Farnworth. This ushered in the biggest bout of field position so far – and the most heroic defence of the game as well.
The Cows had the scrum feed, Drinkwater took it deep into the left corner on the first play, and returned to the same part of the park on the last, where his kick ricocheted off Riki – an unfortunate angle for Staggs, who knocked on while trying to scoop it up. North Queensland got their second successive scrum, gaining a third straight set when Robson dummied and tried to go it alone beside the right post, tempting some messy contact from Rhys Kennedy.
This was now the longest period of sustained field position for either side, so North Queensland had the potential to score the climactic try of the first act if they could just break through the Brisbane wall here. Their last promising play was a terrific flick offload from Taumalolo to Dearden, but the Broncos bounced back now with two big plays on Granville – a tough tackle from Gamble as the no. 1 tried to reprise his left side raid, and then a second hit from Staggs just as Granville was executing the kick, flipping the football into open space.
Isaako chased it down, toed it thirty metres, and got the Broncos their next tackle right on the halfway line. They got a restart immediately off a desperate Dearden ruck error, and Riki now showed Granville how to repeat a visionary play, reprising and condensing his earlier run, which was shorter this time, but harder, and with a second brilliant linebreak to boot. Dancing over an ankle tap from Drinkwater, Riki made ten metres and lobbed it back inside to Croft, who got some serious joy after letting Dearden through at the other end of the field.
Clutching the footy under his arm, Croft eluded the defence, crossed over untouched, and curved around behind the uprights to set up Isaako’s easiest conversion of the night. The Cows might have camped out on Brisbane’s line for most of these last ten minutes, but they’d ended up allowing them to recover their momentum through defence, even if they did have the last word before the break – penalty kick on the siren off a high shot from Ethan Bullemor.
The Broncos headed into the sheds with the equal most points they’ve scored this year, and their biggest halftime lead. Haas was topping the VB Hard-Earned Index (52), just ahead of Taumalolo (44), who’d left the park for a breather four minutes before the break. The first set back was especially volatile, as Haas charged into the line, and Jake Turpin almost broke through the line, falling awkwardly for an injury that saw him taken of the park a few tackles later, and replaced by Danny Levi, as Hess and Tyson Gamble exchanged sledges in backplay.
Play resumed with two contrasting high balls – Isaako leaping two metres in the air, and getting the penalty when Taulagi was unable to pull away from his legs, and Oates taking the next one on the full, only to be rammed by a cluster of Cowboys defenders. Feldt was slow getting to his feet a few sets later, and Hess couldn’t regather the rhythm on the next tackle, knocking on into a combined hit from Kennedy, Levi and Haas, and trying to conceal it with a quick play-the-ball. This turned out to be the critical error in setting up Brisbane’s next try.
At first, the Cows looked pretty good in defence, as Lemuelu and Dearden combined to lift Farnworth right to the horizontal two tackles out of the scrum. Levi stepped into the spotlight now, offloading on the ground to Kennedy a play later, and making the most of a rapid play-the-ball from Riki right on the line as Taulagi desperately rolled away from the play. Seizing the day, the ex-Knight shifted it rapidly out to the right edge, where Staggs planted his left palm in Bradley’s face and got the footy down as two more defenders tumbled him into touch.
The Broncos now seemed to be in peak flow, as Isaako booted through a stunning sideline conversion – the best of the game – only to botch an easy try a set later, when he dropped the ball cold, unmarked on the line, after Staggs caught a Gamble chip for what should have been the best assist of the night. Still, the Cows were starting to look desperate, as Lemuelu lost Drinkwater’s next bomb after what initially seemed like a a strong take, and Hess compounded his try-enabling error with a penalty ten seconds later, for not being square.
The lowest moment of vulnerability came when Gamble utterly skittled Granville as he collected a Croft bomb right on the line, forcing the North Queensland custodian to hang on for dear life as he clutched the footy into his chest. Yet the Cows now had the biggest let-off so far – a high shot from Kennedy on Feldt just after Xavier Willison trotted onto the park for his NRL debut. They moved fluidly up field, and Drinkwater ended by delivering his best ball of the night – a balletic twenty-metre pass that Feldt collected on the wing for his 101st try.
The Steeden moved so high and fast that Farnworth was still a foot below, despite leaping off both feet as he tried to get a hand to it. That didn’t necessarily mean the putdown was easy, since Feldt still had to bump off Oates and contend with Niu, but it looked easy, which was a big motivator for the Cowboys by this stage in the game. Seeing Feldt score always lifts their spirits, so they were pumped to cross again quickly, and very nearly did so off two huge plays.
The first came on the restart, when Drinkwater bombed to the left edge, Taulagi leaped over Isaako to collect it, and then reached a hand back out of Isaako’s follow-up tackle for a superb offload back to the wing. Shane Wright caught it clean, and yet Staggs stormed in for the tackle of the night to wrap him up, leaving room for Isaako to take possession behind the crossbar. Hess and Dearden kept him in goal, but even so Staggs had the last word here, since his solo effort was the equivalent of the three sets of goal line defence just before the break.
Here, as there, defence was what galvanised the Broncos to dominate the final quarter of the match – defence and a little bit of luck. For the Cowboys were pretty unfortunate to have a try denied at the end of the dropout, which started with Dearden nearly putting Dunn through the line on tackle two, and proceeded to Drinkwater making two efforts to reprise his linkup with Feldt. The first was another pass to the right wing – not quite as wide, but twice as high, a harbour bridge effort that the Broncos read perfectly and managed to clean up just in time.
The second was his grubber on the last – a terrific trajectory that split the defence and sat up for Feldt and Lemuelu to converge on it so precisely that it initially looked like a simultaneous grounding, if not an out-and-out Feldt four-pointer. The Bunker scrutinised it once and appeared to approve it, since the try was added to the scoreboard, and then scrutinised it again and denied it, even though the replay showed that Feldt’s fingertips never left the footy, which appeared to be grounded through the consistent downward pressure that he applied.
If Kennedy’s high shot was a let-off, then this was a game-changer, propelling the Broncos into a penalty kick, a converted try, and a field goal during the last part of the match. The penalty came first, during a Drinkwater dropout, when Feldt found himself a mile ahead of the line as his five-eighth got boot to ball. Isaako slotted the kick to make it a twelve-point lead, Taumalolo fumbled the high ball a few plays, and Oates travelled ten metres through a Dearden tackle to almost make it across the line, before the Broncs sent it back in to Gamble.
This was indeed a gamble, since their no. 6 had almost no wiggle room with McLean storming in for the tackle, but even so he executed a perfect field goal, bringing Brisbane within two points of North Queensland on the live ladder. Niu got them rolling with a terrific run on their next set, collecting the footy as Oates was skittled by Hess, and then skipping back over Oates, still on the ground, to feed it into the middle of the field. Dearden broke into open a space a moment later, but Farnworth channelled Staggs’ sublime tackle by stripping the footy clean.
Riki had been a bit quiet during the second stanza, at least compared to his two big runs before the break, but he made it a trilogy here, at the tail end of a terrific Gamble chip to the right. Isaako jumped too high and too early, and yet this drew in Bradley, leaving the footy open for Riki to storm up from behind and ground it untouched, before channelling all of Brisbane’s energy with a wild roar to the crowd. Isaako converted for the final score – 37-18.
This was one of the few genuinely great Brisbane games this year, putting them in a good mindset to consolidate against the Knights next week before they have to face the Roosters in Round 22. Nevertheless, the Cowboys were pretty unlucky with that denied try, which came at the worst possible juncture in the game, putting a pin in their momentum and preventing them executing another of the comebacks that had made the match so exciting. They’ll be looking to recover against the Titans and Tigers, then (especially after Wests’ abysmal loss to the Warriors) before they have to contend with the Eels in two weeks’ time.
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