ROUND 24: St. George-Illawarra Dragons v. North Queensland Cowboys (Browne Park, 28/8/21, 26-38)

Saturday’s first fixture turned out to be one of the best games of the round – the kind of match that can be so exciting on the cusp of finals footy when one team is playing to regain their pride after a spotty year. That team was North Queensland, who were looking to avoid ten straight losses, and had to contend with a St. George outfit who were equally keen to make up for a sixteen-point loss to Parra last week. Each lineup had five players aged twenty or under, meaning that the synergy between veterans and young guns would be critical here.

The Cowboys dominated field position for the first passage of the game, culminating in a try for Reece Robson, but this was only the most distant prologue to what would be their peak – 22 unanswered points in 16 minutes during the third quarter. This was the most sublime passage of play for North Queensland all season, a feast after so much starvation – three tries, all long-range, all back-to-back, and the last executed by a young gun-veteran combo who were both on their first touch of the football, before Feldt put down an epilogue on the wing.

Jason Taumalolo took the first hit-up after a deep kickoff, and for a moment it looked like the Red V might struggle to make early field position, until Josh McGuire was pinged for high contact on Rebuen Cotter midway through the set. The Cowboys spread it left immediately, a sign of their entrepreneurial play over the next eighty minutes, and were at the red zone with three tackles to go. Jayden Sullivan did well to prevent Jordan McLean getting beyond the ten, the Dragons cleaned up a final right edge play, and had survived this early position.

No sooner did they get the ball back, though, than the Cows summoned an enormous pack to drive Jack Bird back in goal. Corey Norman only sent it to the forty, and so North Queensland ended up with a full set in the twenty. Once again, though, the Dragons stayed cool, as Sullivan came up with an even clutchier trysaver, this time on Tom Dearden, whose right-foot step saw him land on the line and roll the footy around behind his head, before Scott Drinkwater booted the grubber too far, and Mikaele Ravalawa patiently let it hit touch.

Five minutes into the game, the Dragons had their first touch of the ball, although Ravalawa didn’t get as much joy now, taking an awkward offload from Zac Lomax on the right sideline that left him no space to secure his footing before he was dragged over the chalk. Meanwhile, Cotter and McGuire met again on the next set – Cotter with a near-break, McGuire with a legal shutdown – and history repeated itself when North Queensland forced their second dropout. Drinkwater threaded the grubber well now, and Tyrell Sloan had to take in in goal.

So far, the Cowboys had absolutely dominated field position, spending so much time in the St. George red zone (no pun intended) that they needed to score quickly now, or else concede some momentum back to the Red V. And who better to consolidate than Reece Robson, the ex-Dragon, who put down four out of dummy half early in the set, but from twenty out, condensing the Cowboys’ superb short-range play into a single magificent dash. Valentine Holmes had his easiest conversion angle of the night, booting through the two to make it six.

With the speed and dexterity of this try, North Queensland had built some serious momentum, so the Dragons needed to survive the restart and generate some flamboyant footy to get themselves back in the game. Given how much of the opening ten minutes had unfolded in St. George’s twenty, it was a minor victory for the Red V when Drinkwater was forced to bomb from his own forty at the end of the restart. Talatau Amone finished the Dragons’ first set by kicking at the same spot – a good strike right down to the Cowboys’ line.

Drinkwater got a little more upfield for his kick this time, thanks to a good combo between Robson and McLean, but even so he couldn’t break the halfway line, while Sloan, Sullivan and Lomax linked up for precisely the play that St. George needed early in the next set. After being stifled for kicking opportunities, Sullivan built on a superb pass from his fullback to break through the line and kick at speed for Lomax, who chased it down and scored his first four points since Round 3. With only 11 games under his belt, he was lead tryscorer for the Red V.

Lomax had also scored during the Round 2 win against the Cowboys, so it felt promising that he’d put down the first try here, and while he missed he conversion, his misfire was quickly eclipsed by Kyle Feldt, who sent the kickoff out on the full. All of a sudden, the Dragons were camping out in the opposition twenty, but their staying-power wasn’t as staunch, with Amone coughing it up just as he was reaching the ten. Mitchell Dunn didn’t waste any time making an impact off the bench either, coming in strong on Lomax when the Red V got the ball back.

The Dragons responded with some of their toughest defence on the next set, starting with a big effort from Billy Burns on Kyle Feldt, which seemed designed to exhaust as much as halt the cult winger, and paid dividends a few tackles later, when Feldt’s typical dexterity defied him as he tried to collect an awkward low pass out on the right edge. This had been the first time that the Cowboys elasticised during this set, after an attrition of big early hits that followed the Burns-Feldt formula, so it felt like the Red V had subliminally reset things here.

Sure enough, they made sharp inroads up the left edge four tackles into the next set, and Matt Feagai actually crossed the line, where he split the difference between bouncing and grounding the ball so finely that the Bunker required a couple of angles to finally diagnose it as a bounce. This was a testament to Dearden’s dogged desperation in defence, and the precision of his late low tackle, especially since Holmes had time and space to clean it up first.  

If the Dragons had glimpsed a rhythm-changer with Feldt’s error, the Cows used their next set to absorb that rhythm back, resuming their close-range attack of the first five minutes to bring it right to the St. George line. Dearden’s kick might have ended with a North Queensland knock-on, and the Cowboys might have wasted their Captain’s Challenge to contest it, but the chase was so strong, and the Steeden so contested, that the visitors didn’t come away too badly here – they’d injected a new precarity into the game they could harness soon enough.

The damage of the St. George scrum was minimal anyway, since the Cowboys mirrored their attrition-like defence during the Feldt set to keep them in their own end, while Murray Taulagi took the kick on the full as if the Condon knock-on had never happened. It was quite striking, then, to see the Cows revert to their worst moments of the game and reverse their recent momentum now, starting with Drinkwater following his earler overlong grubber with a misweighted chip. For the second time too, Ravalawa was able to usher the footy into touch.

Yet Ravalawa could afford to be more leisurely now, while the Dragons got another windfall when Taulagi followed his clean catch by knocking on the high ball in his own ten. The time was right for a St. George consolidation, and Jack Bird got it rolling with a barnstorming run across the face of the defence, shifting from the left wing to the right padding, where he got a late offload away for Tyrell Fuimaono to flick a wide ball out to Lomax. In the best single St. George play so far, Lomax then tapped it on for Ravalawa, as Taulagi came in hard and low.

Ravalawa was always going to score here, neatly bookending the sequence that started with his patience down the other end of the park, but the vision belonged to Bird, Fuimaono and especially Lomax, who not only had prevented Taulagi making good on his dropped ball, and not only weathered one of the more brutal tackles of the game, but rarefied that pressure straight into the most delicate and ethereal pass as well. Even if his second straight conversion hit the posts, he’d provided the Red V with the lightness they’d been missing in quarter one.  

Between Drinkwater’s kick and Taulagi’s drop, it was paramount that the Cowboys survive the restart and go end-to-end on their next carry – or just finish their set. What they didn’t need was Drinkwater taking out his frustration with a high shot on Tariq Sims early in the count, although, to their credit, they summoned a sequence of strong packs to prevent St. George doing much with the additional field position – until Hampton conceded a fresh set.

Sullivan had been restless for a tryscoring run out of dummy half since he first touched the footy, and he provided a pretty compelling vision of the Dragons’ next generation here, storming through three Cowboys right on the line, and consigning Robson’s opening dash to the distant past. Lomax’s third straight kick hit the post, Drinkwater was formally put on report in the background, and the Red V were on the verge of totally controlling this game if they scored six soon, to make up for those three goals that Lomax had so freakishly missed. 

The forwards did well on the restart, culminating with a strong charge from Jack De Belin, but Amone’s inexperience got the better of him here, as he allowed this acceleration to momentarily overtake him with a soaring bomb that landed a good two metres over the right sideline. Conversely, McLean’s experience got the Cowboys rolling again, with strong post-contact metres up the right and an offload to Jeremiah Nanai to boot – and it was a tribute to the Cowboys’ residual momentum that this one moment of consolidation was all it took.

A second later, North Queensland came up with an even more emphatic consolidation try than anything St. George had delivered – a sequence that both invoked their own strongest moments and hit back at the Dragons’ dexterity too. Drinkwater finally got the kick right, with a beautiful crossfield chip out to the right wing, where Nanai took it in the air, and drew on both McLean’s offload and Bird’s offload by popping it out to Robson, who channelled the dexterity of his own opening try by shifting it across for Feldt to nab four more on the wing. 

This was the final piece of the puzzle – Feldt, whose error had set the St. George surge in motion, putting down a try in his favourite part of the field. Conversions were coming so slowly tonight that it didn’t much matter, as far as momentum was concerned, that Holmes swerved it across the face of the posts. The Cowboys had curbed the Dragons’ flow and narrowed the deficit to four, after ten minutes when they’d only enjoyed 23% of the football.

They looked set to take the lead a moment later, returning to the more enterprising play of the first quarter by spreading the Steeden wide, in their own ten, from right wing to left. The last pass was from Taulagi to Hampton, who busted through a low tackle from Lomax, burst into open space, and almost looked good to go the whole way, only to be totally blindsided by Ravalawa, who surged out of his blind spot for a crunching hit that ricocheted the footy twenty metres upfield. Already, this was easily the best hit of the game – maybe of the round.

With a successful Captain’s Challenge to prove a Griffin Neame strip, the Dragons had refound their flow on the cusp of the halftime siren. They were inside the ten by tackle three, as Jackson Ford drew in a swathe of defenders beside the left post, and Norman mirrored his charge beneath the crossbar, so it was a real let-off when Hampton made up for his mistake by taking the kick in the face of a decent chase deep in the right corner. The Cows’ last try came off McLean’s second-phase play, so it felt promising when Taulagi offloaded on the first.

They got more position when Fuimaono was pinged for a strip on Feldt, especially since the replay showed that this was probably a loose carry. Dearden broke through the line and shifted it across to Neame, who offloaded out to Robson directly in front of the posts, so everything seemed set for a try here – possibly an untouched try. Instead, Ravalawa restored the Dragons’ flow by mirroring his sublime hit on Hampton, finding Robson’s blind spot this time to smash the footy free, as the Cowboys struggled to recover by conceding a set restart. 

There was less than a minute on the clock, but this turnaround was too good not to produce a try – and sure enough, Sloan chased down Amone’s kick to put down his fourth in his first four games with two seconds to go, and becoming the first player since Chase Stanley in 2007 to achieve this feat. Lomax might have struggled to add the extras during regular time, but he booted them through after the siren, sending St. George to the sheds on a real winner’s high.

Nevertheless, they’d only score one more converted try in the second stanza, while the Cows would mount an incredible comeback to turn a ten-point deficit into a twelve-point lead, and a final scoreline of 26-38.  Blake Lawrie took the first hit-up, having left and returned to the field after a head knock in the first stanza, and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow took Amone’s kick clean. The Dragons kept the visitors in their own twenty for the first part of the subsequent set, so a restart was just what they needed, as Dearden built momentum with a pair of terrific runs.

St. George were now looking into the sun when collecting the kick, but it didn’t seem to bother Ravalawa, who broke through the line for good measure, while Sullivan made up for conceding the last restart by gaining one midway through this set, off a ruck error from Condon. Ravalawa almost bookended the set with a try, receiving a deft offload from Lomax but unable to keep his boot out of touch when Taluagi and the Hammer converged on him.

A Ravalawa try here might have changed the whole shape of this second stanza, so this was a big let-off for the Cowboys, although they were back defending their goal-line when Holmes fumbled the footy a minute later. Sims smashed over three plays after, and seemed to have believed he scored, but it was no dice from the refs, while McLean took advantage of this brief lapse to barge in on Norman and effectively destroy the Dragons’ recent momentum.

No surprise, then, that this was the moment when North Queensland commenced their comeback. Once again, they spread it from left to right, on the first, within the ten, and once again Hampton came up with the footy, but ths time he wasn’t going to let Ravalawa blindside him. Tucking the ball under his right arm, he checked over his left shoulder repeatedly, like a driver mapping their blind spot, until he was certain Mikaele wasn’t going to reach him, and from there sailed through open space, refueling the Cowboys’ flow in one sublime trajectory.

Holmes added the extras, and we were back to the four-point deficit that Sloan had ruptured just before the break, so the game really hung in the balance here, as both teams sensed that the next try would determine the next major passage of play – and perhaps even the outcome, since this already felt like it might be a sparser tryscoring stanza, at least for St. George. We didn’t have to wait long for the outcome, as the Cows went back-to-back on the restart, and with an equally scintillating long-range play, this time from Nanai and Dearden.

Again, the Cowboys spread it left early in the count, except that this time they shifted from left to right, where Dearden popped out the footy for Nanai to break through the line and make a good fifty metres as he veered back in field, where Dearden was waiting to receive it again. By the time the ex-Bronco smashed over beneath the crossbar, it was like he’d assisted himself. Like Condon’s first run, he seemed oblivious to Ravalawa at his heels, but this was good oblivion – the single-mindedness of a runner who was always going to reach his target.

Holmes added the extras again to put the Cowboys two points ahead, and with these two end-to-end tries they’d taken control of the entire park. They repeated the formula on the restart, shifting it left in the twenty for Heilum Luki to break through the line and make fifty metres on his very first touch of the footy, before feeding it for Jake Granville to take it all the way to the ten, also on his first touch, where he was brought to ground, but drew deep upon his experience at dummy half with a quick play-the-ball that set up Luki to finish off the job. 

This was the most sublime passage of play for North Queensland all year – three tries, all long-range, all back-to-back, and the last executed by a young gun-veteran combo who both had their first touch of the football. By the time Holmes added his third conversion, the Cowboys had already won the game – unless St. George could muster something really special to hit back with here. Their next set started more conventionally, but they got a fresh burst of field position when Freddy Lussick was pinged for a high shot, so the Red V were in real danger.

Granville and Luki drove the Steeden into the right and left edge respectively, as if channeling their previous combination into a renewed short-range focus, before Drinkwater chipped one of his best ones to the right edge, where Feldt caught it on the full, landed beneath a pile of Dragons defenders, and reached out his arm to plant the footy down on the chalk. In a superb epilogue to their three long-rangers, the Cows had now translated their command of horizontal space into vertical space, bringing the score to 20-32 when Holmes missed the kick.

From one perspective, this was only a converted try lead, with 24 minutes on the clock. But with 22 unanswered points in 16 minutes – and 18 minutes of St. George defence by the time Feagai finally took the high ball at the end of the third restart – the Dragons could only win now if they summoned a flamboyance we’d only seen fleetingly from their game this afternoon. To his credit, Norman got working straight away, with a deft chip that probably would have trapped the Hammer in goal if he wasn’t still high on the Cowboys’ last period.

Conversely, the Dragons were still smarting from the exhaustion of all that defence, as McGuire was pinged for a crusher on Taulagi, in a flashback to the first minute of the match. Dearden hoisted the next one high, and it seemed to hang for an age before Luki took it, landing in a sea of St. George jerseys, but eventually conceding possession back to the hosts. Still, the Red V had to work it right back from their own line – as the final quarter arrived, the light shifted subliminally over Rockhampton, grew golden, and the Cows got seven tackles.

They made the most of them too, soaring upfield through a Taumalolo-Hammer offload, and securing a dropout with an inspired Drinkwater kick on the fourth – a chip with a dangerous enough bounce to defy Ravalawa, who lost his balance as he tried to carry it behind the crossbars and emerge on the other wing, leaving himself open to a punishing low shot from Dearden right on the dead ball line. Norman went short with the kick, Lomax got a hand to it, but again a bounce favoured North Queensland, as the ball careened back to Taulagi’s chest.

This was a powerful flashback to the Cowboys’ early bout of position – those opening minutes when they camped out on the St. George line – but they couldn’t make another repeat here, as Dearden struck his one false note of the game with an overweighted grubber that tumbled into touch out on the right side of the goal area. While the Dragons elasticised right on the next set, and while Fuimaono had a decent run, they seemed exhausted and neutered now, as Norman struggled to find a receiver on the fourth, and delivered a messy kick on the last.

Amone did his best to clean it up, but he couldn’t make up for Norman’s inconsistency, although the Dragons got another chance when Drinkwater knocked on an uninspired Taumalolo offload early in the count. It was weird to see Daniel Alvaro demonstrate exactly the same error in judgement a few plays later, flicking the footy off the head of McGuire. Yet that made this a particularly powerful moment for Sloan to step into the spotlight with one of the best flick passes of his short career – out for Ravalawa to barge through for four more.

This whole sequence had a touch of consolidation about it – in the way the Dragons had bounced back from Alvaro’s awful offload, in the young gun-veteran combo, and in the way it drew on Ravalawa’s powerful playmaking, in a kind of riposte to Feldt’s try on the wing, which always has an especially galvanising impact on his North Queensland team mates. However, these would be the last points that St. George scored – a tribute to the Cowboys’ tenacity over the last ten minutes of the match, which they eventually claimed as their own.

They didn’t bounce back immediately, though, since the Red V got a dropout at the end of their restart – in effect, two restarts, raising the distant possibility of whether they might be able to somehow match the seemingly endless restarts that had fuelled North Queensland’s sublime run of tries. Bird came so close under the crossbars that he could have reached out an arm if he hadn’t submitted quite so much to the tackle, so it was especially dispiriting to see him limp back to his position with an apparent knee injury, instead of celebrating a try.

The Dragons got yet another set off a Granville error, and this was now do-or-die time – the last major surge they’d have before the siren, especially when Dunn was pinged for a ball strip. They’d had as many repeat sets as the Cows had during their third quarter surge (although not, of course, accompanied by as many tries), as Amone followed Bird by charging and landing just shy of the line, this time on the right edge, before Dunn clinically and immediately made up for his error by collecting a poorly judged De Belin offload on the full.

The plays had got clutchier and clutchier over these last four sets, but De Belin’s second phase effort – late, awkward, right on the turf – was a bridge too far. St. George got a major let-off when the judges incorrectly called that Dearden’s kick had landed in touch, presumably because this was now the only corner of the park in shade, and almost impossible to discern in a match that had been suffused with blinding tropical light. Still, the Cows stayed strong, held their own, and steadied themselves for more defence off a well-placed Drinkwater kick.

Finally, three minutes out, McGuire lost the footy deep in his own territory, and the Captain’s Challenge confirmed what had been fairly clear in real time – that this had been no strip from McLean, but just another example of his veteran experience, such a significant asset in a game so populated with new players. One of those young guns built on it a second later, as the Hammer surged up the right sideline and assisted Feldt for what seemed a try on the wing.

It’s always rousing to see North Queensland win a game with a try from their cult winger, so it felt like we might be in for a slightly sour ending when the four points were denied, especially since Feldt appeared to have injured his shoulder in the putdown. St. George had seven tackles to play with, and looked like they might have a real shot of securing the six points they needed to hit golden point, thanks to a Taulagi error and a last-minute dropout.

Instead, De Belin made the last and most critical mistake of the game, following his botched offload by culminating a series of charges at the line that grew more desperate with each tackle, until the Dragons were playing hot potato with the football. It was all going to come apart at some point – he was just the fulcrum, as Taulagi took his pass on the bounce, stormed through the line, and shot it across for the Hammer to end a ten-game Cowboys losing streak.

Just as golden point loomed on the horizon, North Queensland summoned the vision of their three long-range tries after the break, ending with the same sublime end-to-end flow that had cemented this game as the critical motivator during their off-season rebuild. Whatever happens next week against the Sea Eagles, it can’t dent this rhythm, while the Dragons must have been stunned by this outcome, and will be looking to regain some pride when they bookend their season with a rematch of the Charity Shield against the Bunnies next 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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