Thursday night’s match in the nation’s capital was an extraordinary start to Round 6, offering us a first and last quarter of footy that could have been taken from completely separate games. Both Canberra and North Queensland were sitting on three wins and two losses to begin the season (with both of Canberra’s losses in their last two games), meaning this was a critical rallying-point in resetting their rhythm for the first third of the year. On paper, the Raiders should have been victorious, and not just because this was a home game in Bruce.
For the first quarter of the match, it all played out pretty predictably, as the green machine scored two tries off their first big bursts of field position – the first on their opening bout of possession – and built such a speed and flow that they seemed all but guaranteed to win. Yet a couple of botched tries, combined with a few unexpected moments of resilience from North Queensland (along with a pummelling night from the forwards, with Jason Taumalolo clocking up 230 metres) meant that the Raiders had lost a fair bit of that flow by the half time siren.
They were still sitting at twelve unanswered points when they headed to the sheds, but over the back forty the Cowboys totally reset the game with three superb consolidation tries – the first from Heilum Luki, off a sequence of desperation runs from the big boppers; the second an individual effort from Val Holmes, in as good a piece of vision as he’s ever shown in the backline; and the third an utterly scintillating kick from Scott Drinkwater that was so perfect it felt destined to carry Murray Taulagi into its flow and put the Cows ahead for the first time.
Add to that a tendency for errors and penalties to accumulate in twos and threes, and momentum was especially mercurial in this match, perhaps nowhere so much as in the second quarter, when the Cowboys withstood Canberra for just long enough to build up the resilience they needed in the second stanza, when they finally settled into top-tier football. It was a splendid sequel to their spirited 26-6 win over the green machine back in Round 2, and in its own way an even more impressive result, given how desperately they had to fight for it.
Coen Hess took the first run of the night, after missing the last two matches with a shoulder issue, while Jason Taumalolo only reached the twenty midway through this opening set, forcing Hess to take a second carry to build some more field position. Even then, Chad Townsend booted it just outside his own thirty, meaning the Raiders were well primed for Josh Papalii to bring it into Cowboys territory on tackle four, before the GIO locals got their first full set in the opposition half off a swinging arm from Reece Robson on Joe Tapine.
Peta Hiku slammed in to prevent Charnze Nicoll-Klokstad breaking up the middle halfway through the set, but the hosts had enugh momentum to deliver a try here, off one of the best runs of Josh Starling’s career. Scooping up the Steeden at the ten metre line, he pivoted mercurially from boot to boot, shaped for a wide one out to Papalii, and deceived Hess in the process, before slicing so subliminally through the line that he crossed untouched beneath the posts, in a sea of North Queensland jerseys, setting up Brad Schneider for an easy two.
The Raiders had scored a beautiful try off their first burst of field position, and didn’t take much longer to break the halfway line on the restart than on their opening set, thanks to some strong post-contact metres from Tapine and another daring run from Starling. While the momentum only just got them into Canberra territory, the kick trapped Murray Taulagi right on his line, establishing what initially looked set to be a punishing six tackles for North Queensland, especially when a big Raiders pack bundled Peta Hiku over the left sideline.
In the first rapid shift of the game, however, the Cows now got their first big boost in field position off three critical moments – first, a penalty for Jordan Rapana, who was held to have shoved Hiku into touch after the tackle was complete; second, a restart off a Starling ruck error; and third, a superb Townsend grubber that left Semi Valemei no option but to clean it up behind the chalk. North Queensland had gone from defending their try line to securing a dropout, as Taumalolo and Hess fought a tough Canberra defence to make it to the twenty.
Tom Dearden found it just as difficult to break through, Reuben Cotter didn’t even reach the ten, and this time Townsend didn’t quite nail the kick, producing an awkward ricochet that gave the ball back to Canberra. Now it was the green machine’s turn to get out of their own end with a penalty, as an apparent knock-on from Jack Wighton at dummy half was eclipsed by Robson conceding his second straight error with an offside within the ten. For the briefest of moments, though, it seemed it might all come apart with a bouncer from Elliott Whitehead.
Instead, Papalii reinvigorated the second half of the set with a very late offload, before Tapine drove them from twenty to ten. The Cows survived, but once again the Raiders got out of their own end, this time off a pair of penalties, both of them from Jeremiah Nanai – the first for an aerial tackle, the second for dumping Starling on his head after he accelerated into another late offload from Papalii. For the second time, the Raiders got a double bump down the opposition end, and for the second time they scored a superb try off that rapid escalation.
This time it came off a pitch perfect wide sweep, as Starling went from tryscorer to try orchestrater, with a sharp ball out of dummy half to set up Schneider for the widest pass of the night so far. Corey Harawira-Naera touched it first, tapping it on to Rapana who pulled out the professionalism with an old-fashioned surge up the wing, where he popped the Steeden down before the Cowboys knew what had happened. Schneider showed he could boot them just as good from the side, and the Raiders were sitting on 12 unanswered points.
North Queensland had to accelerate quickly, and while they didn’t make terrific inroads into Canberra territory on their first set after the restart, Townsend compensated with his best bomb so far – high, arcing and destined to land right on the Canberra line. That just made it all the more frustrating when further post-contacts brought Tapine back into Cowboys territory on tackle four, where Cotter showed the first real signs of panic with a reckless strip, but not as reckless as the subsequent challenge, the most farcical that we’ve seen all year.
This had been two brainsnaps from Cotter, and gave Canberra a new psychological advantage as they settled into a fresh set inside the North Queensland twenty. CHN came close to twisting and spinning over on tackle two and Matthew Timoko put in a decent charge on the left, but it all came apart on the last with an almost-visionary boot from Schneider, who saw that Valemei was unmarked back on the right, but hoisted it just a little too high for him to seize the Steeden with both hands. It was the first genuine let-off for North Queensland.
For the second time, on the cusp of the second quarter, the visitors now got a double burst of position – working on the ground from Papalii, and then a ruck error from Smith, bringing them to the ten by tackle three, and then over the line, as Scott Drinkwater wove his way through the defence and flicked the footy out for what initially looked like a classic Kyle Feldt try. His passage was so easy it would have reset the game if he’d scored, especially off the botched Schneider-Valemei combo, but the try was denied off a Nanai-Wighton obstruction.
Both teams now had a frustrated try, creating a weird lapse in momentum. The Raiders had been brought down a peg or two after their splendid opening, but the Cows hadn’t been able to capitalise on it either. Canberra had to do something special with the next set, especially since it started with a penalty, and Wighton knew it, chipping on the fourth with a touch of Mitch Moses’ genius against the Dragons. He didn’t have any chance of reaching the footy, but the aim was good enough to force the dropout his men needed to restore their flow.
Wighton repeated the formula at the end of the set, but from closer range, and this time Whitehead got there before the defence. For a brief moment, he glimpsed the try, and actually got both hands to the Steeden, only to lose it again as Drinkwater and Feldt converged on him. Canberra had botched another try, and had their first incomplete set, and Valentine Holmes made the most of it at the end of the next set, when he sliced into the twenty on tackle four, and tempted a fumbled intercept from Wighton to rack up six again.
This was the moment for North Queensland – a full set on the line, two missed tries from Canberra – but instead the full brunt of the green defence came in to force an early error from Heilum Luki, while Drinkwater got pinged for not packing the scrum properly. The Cows got another chance with a cough-up from Timoko, followed by some incidental high contact from Wighton on Drinkwater, and then six again to give them almost an entire set inside the twenty, although it wasn’t a great sign that Taumalolo couldn’t break the twenty on play one.
They followed with their most uninspired set of the night, culminating with a sorry riposte to the Raiders’ superb right side sweep – a wide ball from Drinkwater that Hiku collected so clumsily that his whole body was set off balance, leaving ample time for a big Canberra pack to drive him over the sideline from fifteen metres infield. Drinkwater, like Townsend before him, tried to save the day with a game-changing kick, this time a big bomb to the right that nobody was able to turn into an attacking opportunity, despite CNK ricocheting it backwards.
This might have been the most depressing moment so far for North Queensland – an attacking kick with no chase or belief behind it – even if Drinkwater did bookend it all quite nicely with a clean take under Wighton’s next boot No sooner had he secured it, however, than he was confronted with precisely what his own men had failed to deliver at the back of his own last bomb – a strong enough chase to induce him to offload it to Townsend, who caught it on his back, but not Drinkwater conceding the knock-on that got Canberra another set on the line.
In these last few minutes, the Raiders had returned to that rousing rhythm of their two tries, and yet the Cowboys dug in too, determined to prevent a repeat of that flimsy opening defence. To his credit, Taulagi delivered the biggest defensive play so far with an intercept at the critical moment, receiving the footy from CNK like he was always the intended recipient, and geeing up his men enough to catch Corey Horsburgh offside in the ten a few plays later. Add to that a Wighton error, and the Cowboys had their most significant position of the game.
True to the spirit of this first forty, however, it all ended with a whimper, and the Raiders got back on the offensive with three minutes to go. Wighton sent it over the sideline, capping off a superb kicking game so far, and not even a Holmes-Robson and Nanai-Dearden offload could inject much energy into this sluggish North Queensland side, which was put to shame by a mad dash from Rapana up the right edge, off Drinkwater’s last kick before the break. Bumping off Tualagi, he put Schenider through the line, as Canberra built to one last burst.
They were inside the twenty with thirty seconds to go, and on consideration probably should have gone for the field goal, since Whitehead lost it in his enthusiasm to break the line, in what became the last note of the first stanza as the Cows headed to a scrum that never beat the siren. However, they made up for it with some rousing defence for the first set back, forcing Wighton to boot it from the forty, under pressure from Nanai, before rolling down the park relatively easily themselves, thanks to some strong post-contacts from Jordan Maclean.
Even so, the play-the-balls could have been faster, and by the time Drinkwater kicked they hadn’t broken the forty, while Nick Cotric’s determination for his men to do better on this set was written all over his face as he slammed into the defence on tackle one. Timoko added a late offload to Starling, and shaped again on the left a tackle later, giving Wighton an additional ten metres to toe it, although this was still a far cry from the rapid bursts of postion that started the first half – especially when Horsburgh got pinged for a flop on Drinkwater.
Big runs from Luki, Taumaololo and Heilum Luki anchored the start of this next set, while Maclean compounded them with another big post-contact charge, and this time garnered himself an old-fashioned grapple from Starling. Apart from the sheer grunt of these carries, there hadn’t been a great deal of shape to the start of this Cowboys set, so it made sense that their first try came off a simple continuation from Luki, who basically took the same run from close range, barging straight through Schneider and Emre Guler, and bouncing off CNK as well.
At this stage, the putdown didn’t have to be dexterous – just tough, and Luki delivered that in droves. Full credit to Robson, too, for the vision from dummy half, ten metres out, bringing us to a converted try game as Holmes booted through the two. Ricky Stuart was on his feet as Holmes supercharged the restart with an offload to Taulagi on the ground, Gilbert followed Maclean with the post-contacts and a big one from Dearden forced Rapana to ground it on his own ten, before Robson came in hard to drag Valemei five metres back on tackle two.
All of a sudden, the Cowboys had the momentum, buoyed up by the improbability of only being six points behind after so much accumulated Canberra field position. At the same time, they’d reset the balance of position so brilliantly since the sheds that they had all the flow now, as Holmes followed the second phase play of the last set with a superb linebreak that sent the Canberra line into disarray. This time Dearden chipped right, and Nanai finished off their best set of the night by meeting Wighton in the air, and forcing him to tap it into touch.
The Cows got a restart on the restart, off a Tapine ruck infringement, and were inside the ten off a tough Gilbert run, only for CNK to reverse the momentum with a stealthy one-on-one strip at the very second that CHN and Guler pulled back from the tackle. It was a good enough sleight of hand for Canberra to reabsorb all the North Queensland momentum if they could just escalate into something special now, as Starling screamed out for a rapid play-the-ball, but to no avail. They completed the set, but without any fanfare, as the Cows stuck in again.
Still, the visitors only got through three tackles, when Gilbert put it down, giving the Raiders another chance to reset the rhythm, this time from halfway up the park. In one sublime sequence of consolidation, Cotric collected Wighton’s chip on the left and booted it back in field, where Dearden came up with it, but not without a massive Canberra pack converging to drag him in goal. This was muscular football, tempting Drinkwater into a ruck infringement early in the dropout, as the Raiders settled into a full set right on the North Queensland line.
Raider after Raider surged at the chalk, as if to draw on the forward-heavy escalation that had coalesced into Huki’s crossover, and it all came together with one last charge from Schneider – or so it seemed. In a mirror image of the pack that dragged Dearden in goal, the young halfback carried both Kris and Townsend with him, and would have scored if he’d landed at a slightly better angle, but instead found the Steeden grazing off the ex-Shark’s arm before he could cleanly ground it. This was the best and toughest defence so far from the Cowboys.
Even so, the green machine had two more tackles, and Wighton made the most of the kick, grubbering it on the left where Drinkwater slipped as he tried to clean it up. For the briefest of moments, it looked like the Raiders would use the subsequent scrum to summon the speed of their opening quarter, as Schneider drove it deep into the line, and sent it on to Valemei, who ricocheted it out to nobody on the wing, as the call came down that his halfback’s pass was forward anyway. Luki scooped it up and we were still, somehow, at a six point game.
As the final quarter arrived, this had become a closer match than the opening quarter might have suggested. A CNK error got the Cows their next shot in the Canberra twenty, where Taumalolo delivered his best post-contacts of the night in an epic one-on-one contest with CHN up the left edge. Just when Drinkwater seemed cleaned up on the right, a few plays later, he handed more than offloaded the footy to Hiku, who threw a speculator back in field as Holmes curved around and showed his full vision in the backline to smash into it at high speed.
So unexpected was his trajectory, and so improbable his acceleration, that he was able to achieve where Taumalolo had failed, disposing completely of CHN and barging through Horsburgh to score beneath the uprights, before converting his own try a moment later. With sixteen minutes left on the clock, the Cows had finally levelled the score with exactly the two types of try they needed after the first stanza – a bullocking effort from the big men and a visionary individual effort from the spine. Canberra now needed an even better one-man play.
Wighton got them rolling with a huge hit to prevent Feldt making much of his next kick return, and the Cows took a slight blow as Hess left the park after his second stint of the night. Townsend struck it hard off the right boot, continuing to target a limping CNK, as Xavier Savage trotted onto the sideline a little earlier than expected, primed to make his fourth NRL appearance as Adam Elliott barged up the middle for some rousing post-contact metres. His very first gesture was leading a massive chase to keep the Cowboys trapped in their own end.
North Queensland weren’t lying down, however, as Holmes and Taulagi combined to shut down Savage on his very first attacking play, making the most of a poorly timed left-boot pivot to slam him over the sideline, where he landed awkwardly on his left arm, which hung limply at his side as he hobbled back to the park. For a few plays the Cows channelled all the indecisiveness of their lowest points of the game – and then traversed and transcended it, thanks to a beautiful Drinkwater grubber that Nanai chased down and took right on the chest.
All he had to do was land cleanly to score, and that’s just what he did, capping off one of the best kicks of Drinkwater’s career – a kick so perfect that the putdown felt part of the same scintillating trajectory. If the first try had been a bargeover, and the second had been a piece of individual genius, then this was a vision of total synergy, a flowering of the prescience that Drinkwater had shown with the offload that distantly set up Holmes for the second try. Speaking of Holmes, the no. 3 made it 3/3, so the Cows were sitting at 18-12 with eight to go.
Nanai was up to a mad Elliott charge towards the end of the next set, and Drinkwater was equal to a Wighton chip in a sea of Canberra defenders. Now the Cows had to work it back from their own ten, and they did so methodically, as Taumalolo took a strong carry out of dummy half, and Townsend booted it all the way to the Raiders’ ten, where Savage began the long trip back to the North Queensland line. Midway through the set, Whitehead put it down, and with zero tackles the Cows had a big chance to put it in the bag here for the upset win.
Townsend was barking out orders to his men midway through the count, and appeared to be gesticulating for a field goal, but instead they lost the footy on tackle three, and the Raiders got a set right on the North Queensland chalk when Taulagi was pinged for an escort on Rapana at the back of a Schneider kick. Yet the rapid changeovers only intensified when Tapine stuffed up a decoy run, and had to content himself with flicking a Starling pass right back to the Cowboys, who didn’t break the halfway, forcing Townsend into another big kick.
With less than two minutes on the clock, this last set was make-or-break for Canberra, and Cotric knew it, questing for space up the left edge before his men brought it back inside, relying on the big men to search for a gap. Wighton offloaded to Whitehead on the play, and Elliott sent it on to Timoko, who falconed it off Rapana as all the chaos of this last quarter culminated with Robson securing it on the turf. All North Queensland had to do was complete this final set, and with two seconds left Townsend was content to boot it over the sideline.
So ended an extraordinary start to Round 6, as the Raiders coughed up a double-figure lead, and the Cowboys leaned back into the groove that began their season, putting them in a good head space to rock up against the Titans next week. On the other side of the Steeden, this was meant to be Canberra’s week off after stints against the Storm and Sea Eagles, so they’ll need to brace themselves to take on another challenging outfit when they travel to the foot of the mountains to take on a Penrith squad at the very top of the table on Sunday afternoon.