Sunday’s game at Cbus was (hopefully) the last clash of 2021 with empty stands. The Cowboys had suffered seven straight losses, and were out of contention for finals footy, while Tom Dearden hadn’t won a game in North Queensland colours after joining them back in Round 13. Getting the competition points from a Queensland derby would be a good way for the Cows to build some belief for next year, especially with Val Holmes returning to the fullback jersey for the first time since Origin.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Titans were out of the eight, but had a good enough differential to boost them back to seventh if they won here – and win they did, clocking up three on the trot for the first time since late 2020, and racking up an extraordinary accumulation of field position in the first stanza that had shades of the Warriors’ near-perfect game against St. George last year. Half an hour in, they were 20/20 to the Cowboys’ 6/9, generating enough flow to take them into a tough one against Melbourne next week.
The Titans started with a methodical set, as Beau Fermor used the third tackle to showcase his skills on the left edge with David Fifita once again out of the starting eight. Play paused as soon as Holmes took the high ball for Murray Taulagi to get some neck attention after hitting the ground hard during a rolling tackle on Patrick Herbert. While his health was the main imperative here, it was pretty dispiriting for the Cowboys to see their top tryscorer (10) of the year leave the park one set in, putting pressure on Kyle Feldt (9) to deliver the four-pointers.
Reece Robson restored North Queensland’s flow with a nice run early in what was still their first set, and Jake Granville made an immediate mark after coming off the bench at left centre, driving the Steeden hard and fast up his edge of the field before Corey Thompson halted all that escalating momentum by skidding down on his knees for a stellar take on the full. With Connelly Lemuelu offside downtown, the Titans got an augmented second set, shifting it left midway through, as Taylor flicked a beautiful wide ball out to Thompson.
The ex-Tiger didn’t get through the defence, but the elasticity and experimentation of Gold Coast spoke to their blooming confidence in the wake of their last two wins, and it all came together with a superb Toby Sexton kick on the right that left Ben Hampton no option but to clean it up in goal as a collection of Titans converged on him. Splitting the difference between a grubber and a chip to take advantage of Cbus’ smooth surface, this was a confidence play, setting up the home team for their first close-range attack on the North Queensland line.
They got two further bursts of position, first with a Heilum Luki strip, and then with a high shot from Coen Hess, swinging out to the left where Thompson had a second shot at his try on the wing, thanks to a superb assist from Brian Kelly, who turned 180-degrees to collect a short ball from Taylor, before shifting it out to Thompson in the same motion. Dearden and Holmes arrived late, but did enough to bump the Gold Coast fullback over the chalk and dislodge the Steeden from his grasp.
In yet another boon for the Titans, however, Dearden was called offside, giving the home team one of their best accelerations of field position all year. That just made it all the more urgent they score here, or else concede the momentum back to their northern neighbours, and Mitch Rein came close two tackles later, with a mad dash from dummy half, only to find a wall of Cowboys waiting for him. Nothing much happened in the middle of the park, meaning it all came down to another Sexton kick to the right, but from longer range.
After seven minutes of defending their line, the Cows got a much-needed penalty when Kevin Proctor launched out his right arm to greet Jordan Maclean in the face, while Taulagi had returned from the sheds, and was well enough to sit up and watch from the sideline. At the very least, North Queensland needed to complete this set, but instead Lemuelu made his second error, fumbling an outside pass from Holmes with Feldt unmarked and barking for it on his right – all on the Cowboys’ first surge into Gold Coast territory.
With such an abrupt turnover, the Titans had a shot at drawing on the residual rhythm of their last string of sets, so you had to wonder why Fifita still hadn’t left the bench. North Queensland were determined not to let them reach the red zone, and they succeeded, forcing Taylor to boot it just over the twenty, before Scott Drinkwater came up with a potentially game-changing catch with Proctor’s fingertips still on it. The next set was all recovery, starting with a second dummy half run from Robson and ending with a soaring Dearden kick.
Brimson fielded it and dragged Luki twenty metres, before Greg Marzhew followed in his footsteps, dragging the defenders another fifteen, so that Tino Faasuamaleaui was in position to steer the Steeden into the red zone by tackle four. Nevertheless, Taylor came up with his worst kick option so far, failing to thread the needle, before Jarrod Wallace conceded more field position with an illegal (and it seemed, inadvertent), strip. North Queensland were in the twenty two plays later, as the Titans settled into their first goal line defence of the game.
Dearden opted to shift it out to the right, where the sweep decelerated on its way to Feldt, who slowed down as well on the right edge, relying on pure strength and agility to bump off Thompson and careen through two more defenders. From there, he tried to flick it back in goal, for one of the more eccentric second phase efforts of the season, but a Gold Coast challenge proved that his boot had already hit the sideline. A minute later, they got six again, off a ruck error from Tom Gilbert, and just like that they were back in the Cowboys’ twenty.
Big Tino brought them to the ten, Sexton drifted across to the right, where he sent Brimson a hospital ball with Hampton coming in hard and fast, and Sexton booted it back to the left edge, where Lemuelu started making up for his opening errors with a confident take. You could sense Feldt’s frustration, too, in the energy with which he lauched himself into the defence, cementing this as a right edge-focused set – right down to Dearden’s kick, made within his own forty, which Thompson collected just on the sideline.
Thommo hit the same sideline midway through the next set, when Feldt dragged him over it, but it was deemed to be a second movement, and the Titans got their next try a play later. After so much attack on the North Queensland chalk, this was a remarkably elegant sequence, as Taylor made up for his earlier botched grubber with a beautiful boot through the line for Kelly, who chased it down, ground it, and then attempted something between a celebratory slide and somersault that ended with a face-plant, a dislocated finger, and a near-HIA.
Sexton struck the sideline kick beautifully, bringing his men to 6-0 on the cusp of the second quarter, while Taylor had made a good argument for a renewed contract at Gold Coast over the last ten minutes. Brimson got the restart rolling with another rollicking run, this time across the face of the defence rather than up through it, and then took another carry on the second to barge his way to the Titans’ twenty. With some strong post-contact metres from Marzhew, Taylor was in good position for a big bomb out to the right corner.
Feldt was up to the task, jumping early, juggling it, and then roping it in, as the game reached a new level of intensity and desperation. Gold Coast had to prove the try was no fluke, North Queensland had to hit back, and the next error or penalty could prove fatal. The good news was that Drinkwater had passed an HIA, and would be back on the park soon, although that didn’t help the Cowboys now, as Thompson reached a boot back over the dead ball line to take a Dearden bomb on the full for seven tackles, bolstered by a second Gilbert ruck error.
Sexton now mirrored Robson with a deft dummy half run, clearing up space for Tino to charge it up the middle, before Moeaki Fotuaika brought his men to the ten metre line, and Taylor attempted to reprise his kick for Kelly. This time, however, Feldt was in place, compounding his last take with a courageous collect at close range, scooping the footy up into his chest as Kelly repeated his awkward somersault, but over his defender’s head this time around. Yet the Titans got the ball back off a third Lemuelu error, and then a brief touch from Mitch Dunn.
No sooner had Dunn made contact than Brimson scooped up the footy and set his eyes on the right corner, for a second rapid try off a North Queensland error. His main contest came when he recovered the Steeden, since Hampton’s hands were more dangerous than the defensive line, which was utterly unprepared for him to tuck it under his right arm, and slow to a jog as he put it down on the wing. Sexton’s second kick ricocheted off the right post and away from the crossbar, but this was still a resounding sequence from Gold Coast.
Part of the issue here was Todd Payten’s decision to start Jason Taumalolo on the edge for only the fifth time since 2015 – an even stranger strategy than keeping Fifita off the park for so long, although you had to look forward to seeing these two big boppers smashing together in the same part of the park. In the meantime, Sexton made up for his missed conversion with a fourth-tackle 40/20, bending the ball beautifully to hit the sideline at just the right spot, as the Titans found their restart unfolding entirely in the North Queensland twenty.
In its arc and trajectory, this may have been the most perfect 40/20 of the year, so it felt poetic when Sexton echoed it, but at close range, forcing Hampton to follow his put-down in goal with a tap into touch, as the Titans rocketed to 20/20 sets in less than thirty minutes to the Cowboys’ 6/9, along with 38-10 tackles in the opposition half, 19-4 in the opposition twenty, and 69-154 tackles all up. They swept across the whole breadth of the park, as Granville delivered a trysaving tap on Brimson, and Sexton made his third kick to the right.
This time he didn’t get so lucky, but the Cows didn’t get especiallylucky either, since while Hampton made up for conceding two dropouts by taking the footy on the full, he kept one boot on the ground, meaning his men had to work it back from their own end. They got a restart to help them on their way, off a Fermor ruck infringement, but it all came apart with the first big Taumalolo-Fifita confrontation. Herbert ran out of the centres to help with the job, and a complementary charge from Tino finally forced the football free.
Nevertheless, the Cowboys rallied and hit back here, as Lemuelu came in hard on Kelly early in the next set, holding him up long enough for Feldt to rally a pack to shove him over the sideline. With nothing to lose, the visitors elasticised and enterprised early in the next set, shifting it from left to right, through a series of wider and wider passes, before Drinkwater translated all that breadth into height, with a soaring bomb that Marzhew positioned himself well to collect, standing too far back before launching himself over the chase to make contact.
North Queensland’s exhaustion was starting to show, as Kelly and Marzhew made early metres up the middle, before the hosts got a restart late in the tackle count, off a Hess error. With almost no defensive line, it felt like Gold Coast might just take it all the way here – and sure enough Fifita collected it in the twenty and barged his way through Granville, who tried to reprise his trysaving ankle tap on Brimson, but instead found himself dragged fifteen metres to the line, where Holmes never stood a shot of stopping the try at the death.
Sexton had his worst kick yet with the conversion, but the Titans were now at peak flow and already seemed to be looking beyond this particular game to the challenges of taking on Souths and Melbourne over the next few weeks. They moved every bit as effortlessly on the restart, as the Cows started the countdown to the siren, and Holmes took Taylor’s bomb on the full. To come away with any belief for the back half, the visitors had to score, but they didn’t have the field position for anything more than a big Dearden bomb on this set.
By this stage the run metres were insane for Gold Coast, who were dominating the top five with Tino, Fotuaika and Marzhew all on 104, and Brimson and Thompson not that far behind on 98 and 83 apiece. They looked good for another try too, as Tino took a wide ball and almost busted through the line, and Hampton got pinged for a leg pull, only for the Cowboys to score a shock four in the only way they could at this stage – through luck plus individual effort.
The luck came when Taylor’s kick ricocheted off the defence, culminating his spotty night with the boot up the left edge, and the individual play came from Dearden, who scooped it up low on the fourth or fifth bounce, tucked it under his arm, and got past Proctor to run the length of the field. After virtually no field position, and after defending their end for the vast majority of the first half, the Cowboys headed to the sheds only ten behind (Holmes missed a pretty gettable conversion) setting the stage for a mouth-watering contest in the second forty.
Gold Coast had bounced back to seventh when they returned from the break, sitting on 20 points, like Canberra below them, but with a vastly better differential of -14 to -74. Hess barged into three Titans for the first run, and Holmes made a decent dash to put down fifteen metres, busting through a Kelly tackle and getting outside Taylor only for Ash to return for a low shot as Thompson slammed in to force the footy free. The Cows sent it upstairs, but the replay showed Thommo had only made contact with the bicep, with no intent to strip.
The Titans were back attacking the red zone before North Queensland had even completed a set, in a worrying flashback to the first minutes of the match. Fifita pummelled into the defence on the right corner, and the Titans pivoted back out to the other wing, where Feldt wasn’t deceived by Taylor shaping to kick, and got himself in place to clean up Kelly when Taylor started the sweep instead. Taumalolo got a nice offload from Dunn, but couldn’t do much on the edge, before Drinkwater bombed from halfway.
All in all, it was a pretty nothing kick – not short enough to create any additional pressure, but without even the slightest hint of a chase as Herbert took it comfortably on the full. Taylor’s next boot was much better, forcing Holmes to bring it back right from the try line, making it almost impossible for this Cowboys iteration to reach the Gold Coast half. It was hard to say what was more extraordinary at this stage – that 80% of the game had been played in North Queensland territory, or that the Titans only had a ten point lead to show for it.
They did make it over halfway on their next set, but only just, as Lemuelu continued a very spotty afternoon by ending a right sweep with a forward pass that Feldt was never going to rein in on the wing, despite his best efforts. This felt like a summary of North Queensland’s night in miniature – they’d made it over the line, but without a tackle to show for it, shooting themselves in the foot just when they seemed to be glimpsing some field position. Meanwhile, Marzhew had shot to the top of the run metres, with 118 to big Tino’s 116.
The Titans now gave the opposition an object lesson in executing a right sweep, sending it looping across the field for Brimson to collect and come to ground within a hair’s-breadth of the line, where he managed to stay (just) in field as a cascade of Cowboys attempted to drag him into touch. Holmes may have taken the grubber on the last, but the Titans still started their next set outside their own thirty, where Thompson seemed so overwhelmed by the number of options that he could only muster a frenetic run along the face of the defence.
Yet while Thommo didn’t make metres here, the sheer energy of his dash, and its hyperactive sense of possibility, galvanised the Titans into their clutchiest set yet, as Marzhew almost bobbled the ball only to add another twenty metres, and Kelly collected a risky cut-out pass from Jaimin Jolliffe before offloading for Erin Clark, who had just joined the park, to drive it hard and fast up the left edge. We were at peak volatility, so it felt like Sexton’s kick the right edge had to produce something – and it did, panicking Drinkwater into an escort on Herbert.
Actually, maybe panic wasn’t quite the right word here, since from one angle Drinkwater simply appeared to stand his ground. Perhaps it was more the collective frenzy of the North Queensland chase that made him a little sloppier here in his contact with Herbert. In any case, the Titans wasted no time shifting it right, where Thompson was cleaned up on the edge, but not without evoking the same potential as his earlier run up the middle, prompting his men to head back that direction soon after, where Fermor had one of the best twists of the season.
Barging into a low tackle from Dearden, as Holmes came in on top, Fermor rotated ninety degrees, cantilevering the curve of the tackle into a left-handed, cut-out, flick pass for Kelly, who was in place to take it over the line easily, since the Cowboys hadn’t even considered that he could possibly be assisted from this angle. Sexton booted through a brilliant sideline kick, and the restart barely felt like a restart, so thoroughly had Gold Coast dominated field position – just business as usual, as Tino bumped off four players midway through.
This may have been the best Gold Coast charge of the night, since along with the metres, Tino got two more results – the biggest fend of the game, which sent Lachlan Burr off for an HIA, and a hand in the ruck from Robson to bump the Titans back to the North Queensland red zone, where they got another fast four-pointer. Fermor now went from assister to tryscorer, running down a beautiful Sexton grubber, and collecting it on the low bounce with the same dexterity with which Dearden scooped up Taylor’s deflected grubber for the Cows’ single try.
With this mercurial play, Fermor had eclipsed Dearden’s pickup, and quashed any real chance of a North Queensland comeback, especially given his sublime assist – and especially given that Sexton booted through another superb conversion, begging the question of whether he might give Jamal Fogarty a run for his money when he returns from the sideline to reclaim the no. 7 jersey. Brimson broke up the middle a moment later, and was careening through empty space when the whistle blew to signal Sam Lisone’s pass had been a metre forward.
This was the letoff that the Cowboys needed, so it was the worst possible time for Holmes to botch an early kick. He was trying to thread it through the defence, but instead sent it off the side of the boot, shanking it out to the sideline where Feldt didn’t have any shot at keeping it from touch. Earlier in the second stanza, the Cows had reached the Gold Coast half without making a tackle, and now they’d arrived at the cusp of the twenty, with four tackles up their sleeve, only to deny themselves position once again.
In other words, they were becoming their own worst enemies, while the Titans continued to perfect their rhythm, concluding their next set with a Sexton chip to the right wing, where Herbert knocked it forward before Fifita brought it over the line, while Drinkwater interfered more overtly here than during his actual obstruction penalty. Still, the Titans were insatiable now, taking more risks and playing more expansive, free-floating footy off their penalty – confident enough to see where their flow might take them as the rain settled over Robina.
Ben Condon got his first touch of the Steeden midway through the next set, clearing up space for Feldt to sparkle on the right edge. Booting it at speed, he carved a terrific trajectory back in field, where Holmes continued by scooping up the Steeden and dodging past Sexton to plant down four beneath the crossbar. It was as if Feldt had kicked it all the way to the try line, and Holmes had hopped on for the ride, setting himself up for an easy two-pointer right in front to bring us back to a sixteen-point game as the final quarter got rolling.
As luck would have it, the Cows got their second six again on the restart, off a ruck error from Taylor, only for Condon to follow his try-establishing run with a cold drop at the very moment they entered Gold Coast territory. History was repeating itself, so it felt like another Titans try was probably on the cards here, as play paused for Thompson, who copped a swinging arm from Gilbert on tackle one. Meanwhile, Burr had failed his HIA, meaning the Cowboys were down to two on the bench as the Titans resumed their set from the North Queensland thirty.
Tino rolled them into the ten on play four, but for the first time the slippery surface got the better of him, as he fell more than plunged through a combined hit from Taumalolo and Condon. Both teams were restless, prompting Gerard Sutton’s second warning about keeping the scrum tunnel clear, and yet even with all that energy behind him Drinkwater could only bomb from outside the forty, while Feldt came agonisingly close to the try that might have shifted the rhythm, fumbling and then knocking on the footy right on the Gold Coast line.
This had been equally disappointing for Lemuelu, who was right behind Feldt, and could have crossed over easily if his winger had maintained the chain of possession, so it was doubly cathartic when he intercepted a Kelly ball midway through the next set. Once again, though, the Cowboys lost momentum as soon as they hit the Titans’ end, as Taumalolo stayed on the ground, and claimed a crusher tackle from Jolliffe, but had to replay the Steeden without any penalty, giving Gold Coast ample time to reset their line in the wake of Kelly’s shock loss.
They only needed a single play to reset the rhythm again, shutting down a left sweep in the most clinical way – first, with Marzhew and Herbert smashing Hampton jnto touch before he could cross off a cut-out from Holmes; and then with Sexton taking Hampton’s last-ditch pass inside on the full. This was a good ball from Hampton, but an even better collect from the young halfback, galvanising Fifita into his most brutal carry of the night, up the right edge, before Thommo parlayed all that energy back to the left with an assist to rival Fermor.
The play started on the left sideline, where Thompson outdid both Dearden and Fermor to scoop up the Steeden right on the turf – a considerably harder task now that the grass was so wet. From there, he booted it down the same edge, and chased it himself, shaping to pick it up again at the death, only to toe it forward for a kick that, if it was intentional, had to be one of the best ever chips in the modern NRL. Hitting it at speed, under pressure, in the wet, he still struck it with the soccer-like dexterity needed for it to sit up just shy of the dead ball line.
Taylor was up to the task, stretching his whole body out in mid-air to hit the ground at the same time as the Steeden, as if gathering his entire frame into the movement of the footy, much as Holmes had seemed to hitch a ride on Feldt’s superb kick ten minutes before. This was the first time in four years that Taylor had scored in back-to-back games, and Sexton added another conversion from the sideline, but there was no doubt that this sequence belonged to Thompson, who had somehow managed to upstage ever Fermor’s sublime assist.
Just to make things interesting, Drinkwater mirrored Thompson’s chip to Taylor at the end of the next set, relying on Brimson being out of position, along with a pack of Cowboys chasers to trap Ash behind the line. Hess drove it hard and fast over the ten on play one, Taumalolo followed him on the left edge, and Drinkwater sent Holmes into the line with a short ball on the wing, before Hess reset the set with a repeat of his opening run – and all that pent-up energy came to a head with Dearden booting it between Fermor and Taylor out to the right.
The longest Bunker scrutiny of the night showed that Kelly had obstructed Condon, who knocked on in turn, gifting the Cowboys a penalty to continue their manic burst at the line. Kelly was also sent to the bin for his troubles, leaving Gold Coast with twelve men for the last six and a half minutes of the match, before they got a second penalty, from Proctor, who didn’t get out of the road in time as Dearden tried to play the footy. With so much field position, and a man off, North Queensland had to score now to hold their heads high.
Robson made the next drive, darting towards the line out of dummy half on the left, and finding another Gold Coast wall waiting for him, but still building enough energy for the Cows to sweep silkily back to the other wing, where Feldt grabbed a wide pass and banged through Thompson for four more. Holmes hung it out to the right, bringing us to a 32-14 game, and putting the onus back on Gold Coast to end this game as they’d played it – on the front foot.
Hess and Taumalolo continued their combination on the restart, while Holmes reprised his wide ball to Feldt, suggesting the Cows might be in for one final consolidation, especially since Feldt flicked it back inside to Holmes, in an echo of his try-assisting kick from the sideline. Yet he mistimed the pass now, sending it too far forward for his fullback to comfortably collect, and leaving Gold Coast free for their final try of the night, which came off the final error from Lemuelu, who lost the footy on tackle two of their following set, into a big hit from Taylor.
Fermor responded immediately, with his second split-second assist of the night, by taking the footy, making a big dummy, fending off Lemuelu, and shifting it out to Herbert, who grubbered-and-chased to put down the last four points in the corner. Sexton sent the conversion off the left post, but it hardly mattered, since this was a Gold Coast team playing like finals footy was on the horizon, peaking at just the right moment to face the Storm and Bunnies over their most challenging and critical fortnight of the 2021 season.