ROUND 22: North Queensland Cowboys v. Wests Tigers (QCB Stadium, 14/8/21, 16-24)

The Wests Tigers needed catharsis after their loss to the Warriors, so facing two bottom four teams over the subsequent fortnight has been both a blessing and a curse – a blessing, because these two outfits should be easy to beat, but a curse because the Tiges often struggle precisely against those teams that should be the easiest to beat. Only a really convincing win could turn competition points over the Bulldogs and Cowboys into a genuine balm for the New Zealand loss, and once again the Tigers didn’t quite come away with that victory here.

They came closer than they did against Canterbury though, quadrupling North Queensland until the last ten minutes, when the Cows bounced back with two big tries as Luke Brooks was sent to the bin. The Tigers’ kicking game was their biggest liability last week, and they had a pretty drab period after the break here too, as Brooksy and Adam Doueihi failed to get a decent strike for five sets. Yet Scott Drinkwater was just as inconsistent, making this one of the worst kicking periods for any team – possibly the worst – during the entire 2021 season.

It didn’t help that James Tamou was out again, this time with a foot injury, or that the surface of QCB was pretty wrecked, pockmarked with divots that saw six or seven Tigers slip over in the first forty. The home ground advantage also played a role, especially since Wests have become complacent with late season wins over North Queensland at Leichhardt. Last time they met in Townsville it went to golden point, although this time around the Cowboys had conceded eight straight, and couldn’t properly congeal until the dying minutes of the match.

Despite some drab moments for the Tigers though, they were still the strongest team on the park – a nice touch for the fortieth meeting between these two clubs, which inevitably came with echoes of 2005. Moses Mbye had done the Tiges a solid in his negotiations with the Dragons, and this seemed to relax him into his best quarter of footy for some time – the last twenty, when he ushered a dangerous Drinkwater grubber into touch, set up Doueihi for a Tommy Talau assist, and then almost assisted Nofa with a beautiful wide ball out to the wing.

Thomas Mikaele took the first run of the night, and Luke Brooks booted it from the halfway line, before Tom Dearden bombed from the same position to make a pretty evenly-paced start. Brooksy brought it into North Queensland territory midway through the next set, but Moses Mbye knocked it on a tackle later, while the Cows got the first restart early in their next count, off a ruck error from Brooks, and more position with a high shot from Jacob Liddle.

They settled into the first left sweep of the game on their first play, and did the same on the right a tackle later, but the Tigers did well in defence now, as Michael Chee Kam came in low to shove Heilum Luki over the sideline. Stefano Utoikamanu and Mikaele parlayed this energy into the toughest run up the middle so far, only for Mikaele to fumble the play-the-ball, and cry out for a challenge even though there hadn’t been a single Cowboy within a metre of him.

Again, the Cowboys swept from side to side, but the set came apart when Scott Drinkwater sent it too hard off the left boot, while the Tigers got their first penalty a tackle later, when Francis Molo took out the frustration of this aborted sequence with a high shot on David Nofoaluma. Utoikamanu continued his momentum up the middle, clearing up space for the Tigers’ first sweep to the right – and it was a good one, as they sent the Steeden all the way out to Nofa, who busted through three tackles and made it within three metres of the chalk.

He also drifted back in field, bringing the set full circle as Utoikamanu made it a trilogy of terrific runs up the middle – this time by collecting a short ball from Brooks, and dragging Luki nine metres, clinging on to his collar, to slam over the line for the opening try. This had been a great opening statement from the Tigers – up the middle, pivot to the wing, and back to the middle – consolidating their confidence as Adam Doueihi booted through his first conversion.

Full credit to Brooks, too, who shaped for a pass out the back, at the start of a left sweep, only to hit his prop square on the chest. Still, the Cowboys got a big let-off when Mikaele made his second mistake of the night, spilling the Steeden on tackle one as he barrelled into an oncoming hit from Jordan McLean. Reece Robson forced the Tigers to scramble right on the line a beat later, but Mikaele got some relief when Valentine Holmes knocked on tackle two.

Mikaele survived his next carry, and laid a good platform for Alex Twal at middle forward, and Brooks steadied his men with his highest bomb so far on the last. Yet Mikaele continued to be a liability, getting himself put on report for swinging an arm into McLean, the man who had forced his own loose carry a few minutes before. Chee Kam followed with his second great save of the night to shut down a Holmes run on the right edge, and the set fragmented further when Drinkwater mistimed a pass to Jake Granville out on the other side of the park.

By this stage, the Cowboys were oscillating from side to side too quickly, lacking any real structure up the middle, in stark contrast to Utoikamanu’s terrific trio of runs. They needed a Tigers error, and they got it when Brooks reached out a boot to deflect Dearden’s next kick. In fact, they were lucky in two respects here, since they seemed to send the challenge upstairs after the ten seconds had elapsed, and then came dangerously close to conceding more field position, as the Bunker checked whether Dearden had knocked on after Brooks deflected it.

It was all cleared, though, and so the Cowboys had their first full set in the Tigers’ twenty. History repeated itself, as Liddle followed Brooks with a boot to Dearden’s grubber, but this time Dearden knocked on as he launched himself on the footy. There was a weird redundancy to this last sequence, then, as the Cowboys followed a challenge by making the mistake that the challenge denied the first time around. The Tiges seemed really galvanised by this, starting with Utoikamanu and Mikaele, who muscled the best post-contact metres of the game so far. 

Twal followed with an even more extravagant play – a flick offload to Doueihi – making this a superb trio from the big men up the middle. Yet Doueihi couldn’t translate this second-phase play into third-phase play, offloading onto the ground, where Ben Condon piled on top of him. The Cowboys got a restart a mere tackle later, and effectively absorbed the momentum of the Tigers’ set, albeit without being able to quite control it, as Dearden only just saved a near-spill on the right, and Robson ricocheted his grubber off Coen Hess and back into the Tigers.

Molo took out the collective frustration with his second high shot of the night, this time a swinging arm into Chee Kam’s head, and Doueihi and Utoikamanu remixed the Tigers’ last set – Doueihi by showing he could make post-contact metres as good as any forward, and Stefano by elasticising the next tackle with a superb offload at speed. This self-correction was just what the Tigers needed to consolidate, and sure enough they scored off their next left sweep.

Brooks started the play, and Doueihi held up the line just long enough for Mbye to soar a superb harbour bridge ball across to Maumalo, who eluded Kyle Feldt to score a try that was pretty Feldt-like itself. Launching his whole body over the line, and landing Steeden-first, is no mean feat for a player who’s well over six feet, but Maumalo made it look as easy as Doueihi’s sideline conversion, which he booted straight and true to bring the Tigers to twelve unanswered points. They’d only been in the Cows’ end twice, and they’d scored both times.

After aborting their last restart, they played this one safe, moving methodically and carefully up field – and it paid off, as Nofa won the contest with Ben Hampton under the high ball, allowing them to accelerate into a more volatile set right on the North Queensland line. Brooks shifted it from side to side, Luciano Leilua made a pair of big runs on the right, and Joe Ofahengaue took a charge at the crossbar, but by the final tackles it was clear that the most sensible option was a grubber in goal to set up a dropout and put more pressure on the Cows.

Instead, Mbye dropped it cold, and yet the Tigers got their restart a tackle later, off a scintillating grubber from Doueihi, who popped it off the right boot five metres out, forcing Drinkwater to mirror his kick right on the dead ball line. Doueihi’s step was light, but the kick was well-weighted, and that combination of strength and dexterity infused the first part of the repeat set, when Brooksy fed it to Shawn Blore. Yet the speed of the set overtook Blore, who followed Doueihi with a poor offload. Holmes contained it and the Cowboys got six again. 

The Tigers had to regather on the next set, and they did so in two ways. First, they showed the Cowboys (who hadn’t had any second phase play yet) that they could correct their offload game, as Chee Kam popped it out to Utoikamanu just before a pack of Cowboys dragged him over the try line, while Nofa made up for another slip by offloading through a Mitch Dunn tackle thirty metres upfield. Second, Doueihi got his men some breathing-space with a hard kick over the side as Jeremiah Nanai became the youngest Cow to debut since Kalyn Ponga.

The visitors now settled into a period of consolidation, as Mbye made up for a silly second effort from Nofa with a tough take under Drinkwater’s next bomb. Most of their best sets had started with an organising run, and Maumalo provided it here, clearing up space for Blore to make more metres in his wake. They were playing for field position, so it was frustrating when Joffa was pinged for a high hit on Feldt a set later, but Leilua hit back with the hardest individual play so far by welcoming Nanai to first grade footy with a clinical one-on-one strip.

Yet not only did Nanai bounce back, but he effectively stole the rhythm back from the Tigers as well, slamming in to join McLean for a tackle on Chee Kam, and Gilbert for a tackle on Twal. You sensed he only needed an error, or an opportunity, to do something more with this resilience, and he got his chance a minute later, after Doueihi tapped back the high ball to Leilua, who knocked it on. Luciano tried to resume the rhythm by sending up a challenge to prove a Hampton knock-on, but it was denied, and the Cowboys got the ball back once again.

They ended the next set with one of the most bizarre try-assisting combos of the year, starting with a bludger of a ball from Dearden, who sent it off the side of his boot to the right wing, where Feldt seemed so startled by the misfire that he wasn’t sure what to do with it. That just made it all the more spectacular when he extemporised with a deft kick right as the second bounce was hitting the turf, for a kind of bespoke banana effort that Robson scooped into his chest back on the left wing, and drove deep into a pack of desperate Wests Tigers defenders.

The newest two Cowboys on the park now got the last two plays, as Griffin Neame collected the offload from Robson, and parlayed it into third-phase play for Nanai to smash over for a try on debut. Holmes added the extras, and North Queensland headed to the sheds with only a six point deficit, while McLean took a barnstorming charge to commence their first set back, laying ground for Nanai and Neame to continue their momentum with metres up the middle.

Like Brooks, Doueihi took the first kick halfway up the park, and Holmes did well to pull his hands away as it skidded into his knees, starting a battle for field position, and one of the most consistent set-for-set periods of the game. The Cowboys weren’t offering much in the way of defensive adrenalin, but the Tigers weren’t shining in attack either, as Leilua mistimed his next offload, forcing Chee Kam to scramble to collect it on the left edge, and Doueihi only just got to his kick under pressure. Finally, the Cows entered the twenty on their next carry.

Even then, though, they couldn’t do much with it, not even mustering a significant chase at the back of Drinkwater’s next bomb, meaning that Nofa was mainly jumping for spectacle when he took it on the full in the left corner. Brooks made his first kick back at the end of this set, and had good space to execute a long-range boot that would have been a momentum-changer if it sat up in front of the line. Instead, it went dead, and the Cows had seven tackles.

Drinkwater opted for a different kind of kick this time – an oblique grubber off the side of the boot – but the result was the same, as Mbye followed Nofa by collecting it clean. In the context of such a drab period, this counted as consolidation, and sure enough the Tigers got two boosts up the park now – first when Nanai infringed the ruck, and then when McLean was pinged for high contact. Yet Brooks repeated his own error now too, with a second overlong kick, from the twenty, that Feldt did well to bump dead with Maumalo at his heels. 

The Tigers might have won over Canterbury last week, but their kicking game had been their biggest liability, so this was a worrying sign with thirty minutes still on the clock, and only a converted try lead. At least they were containing Drinkwater’s kicks – quite spectacularly at the end of the next set, when Chee Kam took it on the full and offloaded through a Feldt tackle for Maumalo to gain some headway on the wing. Doueihi gave us a glimpse of his footwork on the next set, but ended with a third bad kick, sending it soaring over the try line.

Holmes was always going to take it on the full, and the Cowboys had their third seven tackle set, so it was a critical motivator when Blore leaped over Granville to seize Drinkwater’s kick with both hands, and Doueihi caught North Queensland napping to make some big metres on tackle one. Drinkwater’s next kick wasn’t any better either, finding legs again as he tried to boot it midway through the set with two defenders converging on him, but by this stage the bad kicks were hurting both teams, decelerating and demotivating them with each new error.

In fact, this was probably the worst kicking game of the year, all things considered, at least during this back quarter. Both teams needed a big individual play to reset their rhythm, so it was quite disorienting when Feldt, the king of one-man efforts, knocked on into Blore a set later. This was the last straw for the Cowboys, and the Tigers finally wrested control of the game on their next set, as Kelma Tuliagi provided a big play in only his third game for the club.

Receiving a short ball from Brooksy right on the line, Tuilagi stormed over a low tackle from Robson, ricocheted into bone-rattling contact from Holmes, and managed to retain control of the Steeden as he got to ground with Hess piled on top, before booting it ecstatically over the crowd, as if absorbing the conversion kick into the try itself. Doueihi was always going to add the extras from right in front, while Feldt continued to wilt with the kickoff, sending through one of the easiest kicks to collect all evening – and that’s what Nofa did, on the full.

Perhaps that’s why Feldt ran in for some big words when Chee Kam took out Holmes in the air at the end of the next set, involving himself in a minor fracas with Talau that seemed more about amping up his men than anything especially egregious about Chee Kam’s contact, which was clearly accidental. Seeing Feldt fired up seemed to work, at least for the first four tackles, which took them inside the Tigers’ end, but it all came apart on the following play, when Dunn fed the footy to Condon, a poor decision as the young second-rower was quickly contained.

This was a tough effort from the Tigers in defence, and it was defence that had propelled their game, in a flashback to the Ivan Cleary era, since they’d only had 14 tackles in the Cowboys’ twenty (compared to 24 from North Queensland) and were still two converted tries ahead. Conversely, the Cows were at the point where they just had to stabilise things up the middle – and they looked promising on the next set, when Daejarn Asi made the third North Queensland offload for Hampton to get twenty, putting Drinkwater in good space for the kick.

This was Drinkwater’s most promising boot in a while, and the Cows would have probably enjoyed their first dropout if Mbye hadn’t put in such a stellar chase to usher it into touch as Granville surged up behind him. He took some pretty heavy contact as he careened over the dead ball line, but his run proved essential in galvanising the Tigers into their final tryscoring set, which started with a great save from Blore – reaching out his right arm to drag in a wayward Brooks offload with Dearden up in his face – and ended with a clinical right sweep.

Brooks fed it to Mbye, who made the slightest and most subliminal of dummies to clear up space for Doueihi to finally make good on his flashes of footwork since the break. Dancing from boot to boot, the ex-Bunny got inside of Hampton, shaping as if to direct the play back towards the posts only to flick out a bullet ball to Talau that took the Cowboys entirely by surprise. Not only did Tommy make it over the line, but he had time to curve back closer to the crossbar, setting up Doueihi to follow his superb assist with one of his easiest conversions.

The Cowboys took a big blow at the end of the restart, when Hess was both penalised for a high shot and sent off the park for an HIA, while the Tigers got stuck into another full set in the North Queensland red zone. They almost scored again here, off another right sweep – this time a beautiful harbour bridge ball from Mbye that cleared five players before Nofa mirrored Blore by pulling it in with the right palm and pivoting back in field to elude Hampton.

Full credit to Granville and Drinkwater, then, for the cover defence to slide Nofoaluma over the sideline, since he had open space all the way to the chalk at this point. Things got worse for the Cows when Feldt was taken off the park for an HIA, and possibly a jaw inspection, after copping some heavy contact from Brooksky, but they’d survive losing their cult winger, and manage to score two more tries in the last ten minutes, to regain some pride for next week.

Mbye capped off one of his best quarters of footy this year by tumbling onto the turf to contain Drinkwater’s best kick in ages – a soaring, spiralling bomb – and Asi couldn’t mirror the play at the end of the next set, as the footy spilled forward and bounced back for Holmes, in what should have been a knock-on. Instead, the Cowboys elasticised into one of their best sets since the break, though even now nobody challenged Nofoaluma under the next bomb.

If the Tigers had held on here, they could have come away with a pretty unqualified sense of achievement, since 24-6 is nothing to sneer at, even against a team ranked thirteenth on the ladder. Yet they now conceded two more tries before the break, the first of which came on the very next set, when Granville made metres up the left and fed the footy back inside for Hampton to slice through the defence and assist Dearden for a terrific try beside the posts. With six minutes left on the clock, Holmes wasted no time in making it six from right in front.

The speed of Val’s conversion set the stage for the restart, as the Cows grew faster and tighter with each fresh play, until they finally overtook themselves, commencing a manic right sweep that ended with Nanai totally mistiming the final pass to Asi on the wing. Brooks bombed rather than attempting a field goal, a gesture of confidence that seemed to momentarily calm his men, while galvanising Talau, in particular, for the toughest hit of the night on Hampton.

Yet the Cowboys rose to the challenge, producing one of the most convulsive conclusions of the year, starting with six again, as Talau went down in backplay, after copping a finger in the eye during a big collision on Granville. Dearden drifted across field, assessing his options a couple of times before bypassing Nanai to lob a high wide ball out to Asi. Yet Nanai and Asi made good on their botched combo now, as Asi wrong-footed Chee Kam and Brooksy, and fed it out for Nanai to find space up the right wing and return it back in to him from five out.

This was a terrific ball – a one-handed flick over Chee Kam’s head, more like volleyball than footy – and Asi caught it just as well, slamming onto the line where Brooks stopped the try but cost himself a stint in the bin for the last two and a half minutes of the match. Hampton smashed over a second later, as the Cows swept it across the entire breadth of field for a Holmes assist, but Val couldn’t add the extras, while North Queensland wouldn’t score again.

They got a fair few chances in the last two minutes, including a ruck error from Doueihi, a Drinkwater linebreak and a Jake Simpkins penalty, but it all came to an end when Holmes missed his second straight kick with an attempted penalty goal on the brink of full time. The Tigers didn’t end as strong as they might have hoped, so they’ll need to really steel themselves for the Sharkies next week, while the Cows have a big job on their hands when they hit Parra, who’ll be raring for a decimating win after being stunned 56-10 by the Sea Eagles on Saturday.

About Billy Stevenson (751 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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