The Cowboys have made it four in a row, their best streak since 2017, and moved into third position on the ladder, behind Melbourne and Penrith, after a clinical win over the Knights on a humid night in Townsville. Newcastle hadn’t scored in 120 minutes of footy when they rocked up at QCB, while North Queensland were fresh off an epochal win over Parra in Darwin, so this always felt like it was going to go the home team’s way, even though Kalyn Ponga stood up and helped steer his men to a four-point advantage by the halftime siren.
The second stanza belonged to the Cowboys, however, as they rebuilt an eight point lead by the 48th minute, and leaned into their revolutionised attack to create opportunities for Taulagi, Holmes, Nanai and Luki. Chad Townsend’s leadership with the boot was superb, right down to his preternatural combo with Luki for the final four points of the night, while his combinations with Tom Dearden continue to grow in leaps and bounds. The Knights prevented it ever turning into a landslide, but they still need a big win as soon as possible.
Dearden fed the kickoff for Jason Taumalolo to take a tough opening run, Jordan McLean brought it over the forty metre line a few tackles later, and earned the Cowboys their first penalty when Phoenix Crossland flopped on top. Tom Gilbert drove Tex Hoy back into the Newcastle thirty, Taumalolo hit the red zone, Scott Drinkwater put Jeremiah Nanai through a hole on the right, where only Kalyn Ponga was in place to stop a full break, Reuben Cotter took a big run up the middle, and the Cows finally shifted the footy out to the left.
With so much energy already, it wasn’t surprising that they delivered here, as Townsend drifted deep into the line, shaped to kick, and then passed it out for Dearden to dummy, ricochet off Ponga, tumble several times on the turf, and plant the Steeden right in the corner. Hoy slammed in to try and shut down his momentum enough to force a double movement, but to no avail, as an extensive Bunker scrutiny proved there had been no promotion, and that Dearden had scored off North Queensland’s first touch of the footy.
Townsend capped it off with a terrific sideline conversion, booting the Steeden so high it almost cleared the posts by the time it sliced between them. The Knights had now gone 185 minutes without scoring a try, and still hadn’t started their attacking game, while the Cows didn’t show any signs of slowing down, as Kyle Feldt burst into space up the right, and Peta Hiku followed with some big post-contacts in his wake. It ended with a Townsend bomb that Ponga leaped off the field to collect for Newcastle’s first touch, five minutes into the match.
David Klemmer matched Hiku with the post-contact metres, but Crossland still had to boot it from his own thirty, and Chris Randall delivered a strong chase to bring Drinkwater to ground as two more defenders came in to back him up. Still, the Cowboys were rolling up the field, compressing the Knights until Townsend had time to chase down his next kick, which Ponga caught under clutchier conditions this time around. Again, Crossland booted it from the thirty, and this time Drinkwater had the last word, with a Benji-like run to beat four Knights.
Feldt mirrored his run on the next play, Maclean barged twenty metres down the right edge, Val Holmes brought the same energy on the left, and Townsend ended with his first grubber, and his first average kick, weighting it just a little too hard to grant Newcastle a twenty-metre tap instead of a dropout. The visitors only had 48 run metres to the Cows’ 277, so they had to start fighting back now, and they got their first burst of position off a Hoy kick that exposed Drinkwater’s only real shortcoming – his performance under the high ball.
Like Ponga, he leaped from the park to collect it, but failed to secure it in the face of a strong chase from Dominic Young. The footy fumbled free, Enari Tuala and Murray Taulagi competed for it, but lost it backwards, where Leo Thompson could only flick it back to Ponga, by which stage it was clear that the initial error had come from Drinkwater in the air anyway. After a dominant North Queensland opening, the Knights had a scrum from the ten, and they capitalised so quickly that it felt as if they’d scored directly off the scrum base.
Put that down to the vision of Ponga, who collected it from Randall, got on the outside of Dearden, and wasted no time flicking the footy out for Hoy to send a short assist on to Young, who bookended this sequence by crossing on the wing. Ponga might have missed the conversion, but the Knights had their first try in three weeks, off their first bump in position, while Klem garnered a penalty early in the restart by tempting McLean to hang on. It was agonising, then, when Crossland failed to find touch with the kick.
For the third time, Ponga leaped off the ground to take the next high ball, but this time he had to meet Taulagi in the air. Although Newcastle got their set, it was a precarious moment, a reminder just how quickly the rhythm might swing against them if they gave North Queensland another opportunity now. Crossland booted his next one high from halfway, and Edrick Lee got hands to it first, before banging into Feldt, who came out the victor in this battle of the wiry wingers after the ex-Raider lost it in the contact.
Yet Thompson wasn’t taking the changeover lying down, slamming in on Taumalolo, of all people, to force the footy free, in the first mistake for either team in general play. This was a big statement of intent from the Knights, testament to the newfound conviction that had produced their opening try, so at the very least they had to get a repeat. Ponga got them rolling with an enterprising play up the left edge, and Hoy hoisted it high to the other wing on the fourth, where Young caught it and started a shift back to the right for the final play.
Klemmer did well to pop it out to Best, who had space to grubber it through the line, only to boot it straight into Ponga for the most bathetic end to a set so far. The pendulum had swung back in the Cowboys’ direction, as Reece Robson restored their flow with a fifteen metre dummy half dash, and Townsend tortured Ponga with his gnarliest high ball yet. Without Nanai on the chase Ponga might have secured it in the air, but the combined pressure was too much, and so he knocked it down, gifting North Queensland a full set in the ten.
Townsend bent the line back a few plays later, but the line snapped back into place, deflecting the pass and forcing a Coen Hess knock-on, but not without Crossland conceding six again with an offside within the ten. That just made it all the more rousing when Tuala jammed in hard on Dearden, approaching with such force that the ex-Bronco fumbled the footy before they even made contact. Combined with Thompson’s hit on Taumaolo, it was the most significant defensive gesture so far, galvanising Lee into a big charge up the left on play four.
Tualagi showed Tuala he could jam just as efficiently a tackle later, smothering the Newcastle backliner so thoroughly that he was unable to play the footy when he returned to his feet. This could have been a rhythm-builder for the visitors, but it just ended up galvanising the Cowboys into the chase of the night on Ponga, who caught a sublime Drinkwater grubber a metre out from his line, where he had to expend just enough time containing the most unpredictable bounce so far for Hess and Taulagi to arrive and drag him back in goal.
With real momentum behind them, and their first dropout of the night, the Cowboys were a serious threat now, especially once Hiku busted through Best, who only regathered to get him down by the bootlaces twenty meters out. Taumalolo might have been wrong-footed by Thompson, but he now delivered the definitive run of the night, plunging into both Saifitis, and then Klemmer, before the posts, before carrying them all a metre to clear up room for Drinkwater to lob a perfect harbour bridge ball to an unmarked Feldt on the wing.
Even Lee’s massive height wasn’t enough to intercept this one, as the perfect arc of the pass found its counterpart in the curve of Feldt’s run, which brought him to ground directly behind the path of Taumalolo’s sublime charge up the middle. It’d be hard to think of a more elegant consolidation try, so it was doubly impressive when the Knights hit back on their next attack. They got started at the end of the restart, when Ponga made up for a few rough moments under the high ball by busting through the line and making thirty off a Townsend bomb.
Matt Croker continued the 257 Collective momentum by making strong post-contacts to bring it over the Newcastle twenty, before taking another charge right on the line, where he tempted a strip from Drinkwater with three in the tackle. The Knights spent the first couple of plays consolidating, a microcosm of their methodical determination over the last half hour, and ended with a piece of pure inspiration from Ponga, who sent it off the side of the boot and into the left padding, relying on the richochet to reach Jacob Saifiti on the bounce.
If it had been poetic to see Feldt curve around and score in the path of Taumalolo’s epic run, then it was equally apposite to see Saifiti, one of the three casualties of that run, cross over in the same part of the park. Ponga was always going to add the extras from right in front, making it a two point game with ten minutes to half time, providing his men with enough energy to sustain them over a post-try slump, as a Hoy error gave way to a pair of penalties from Jack Johns and Young, who made a slow peel and an early tackle respectively.
Play paused at the 36th minute, when Hess made an uncharacteristic error and got up clutching his shoulder in pain, giving Newcastle more than enough time to catch their breath before packing the last scrum of the first stanza. Nanai did well to clean up Ponga on the left, and three Cowboys surged in to give Croker the same treatment, while this stellar defence culminated with Hess testing his left shoulder with a pitch perfect tackle on Crossland, just as he was getting boot to ball, to deflect the Steeden into a benign trajectory to the right.
Still, the Knights got two restarts on the next set, on either side of a big charge from Klem, who was already over a hundred run metres, putting Crossland in place to reach the ten and shift it back for Hoy to make one of the dashes of his career. He started fifteen out, but got away from Nanai, and offloaded through Griffin Neame, fresh on the field, to Randall, who smashed over beside the left post as Drinkwater and Heilum Luki converged a little too precisely, and ended up knocking heads in the air for dual HIAs in the sheds.
Ponga added the extras after the siren, and the Knights had bounced back with a 16-12 lead at the break with close to their best forty minutes of football this season. Jacob Saifiti took the first run back, Neame expunged some of the frustration of Hoy’s run by coming in hard and low on Randall, and the Knights sent the contact upstairs to turn the on-field ruling of loose carry into a hand in the ruck from the North Queensland no. 17. Now it was Newcastle’s turn to start the stanza with an augmented set, as Klem brought them to the ten on play one.
Croker took a charge midway through, and Crossland was galvanised into the same initiative on the left, where only a late tackle from Cotter brought him down. Even so, Taulagi was up to the contest on the right, getting above Young to take the Steeden clean, as the Cows settled into their first touch since the sheds, ending the set, like the Knights before them, with a Captain’s Challenge, in an attempt to prove that Crossland had got a touch to the footy up the right edge – and, like the Knights, they came away with the position.
Drinkwater’s eye had been swollen when he returned to the park, on the back of his head contact with Luki, and it looked even worse as he shared a brief word with Klem before the Cows got stuck into their repeat set. It didn’t seem to affect his organisation, however, as he barked out instructions following a strong run up the right from Robson, feeding the footy across for Townsend to chip crossfield, where the Tualagi-Tuala contest continued with the North Queensland winger taking it clean in the air, and dancing all the way to the line.
It was the most improbable try so far, since there were a good four or five Knights who should have been able to surge out of the line to shut down Tualagi’s charge, which brought him directly beneath the crossbars to set up Holmes for the easiest conversion of the night. Hess withstood four defenders to stand for ten seconds on play one of the restart, Robson made it thirty to almost break through the line, and Drinkwater shaped to kick, only to run it to the left edge, where Holmes took it low, shifted it out to Taulagi, and got it back a second later.
There was clear sailing all the way to the chalk, so Taulagi now had an assist to add to his try, Drinkwater had set up back-to-back plays, and Holmes was equal with Alex Johnston for most tries scored against the Knights (15), behind Manu Vatuvei and Billy Slater at 19 apiece. He was always going to boot through the two, and the Cows had gone from a four point deficit to an eight point lead in the space of eight minutes. They were in full flow now, as Holmes drove it hard and fast up the middle, so it was a big opening when Neame coughed it up.
Put that down to the humid conditions, but also a tough tackle from Crossland that had the potential to swing the game back Newcastle’s way if they capitalised on this set. They were ten metres out by tackle four, before Ponga shot through a deft grubber that the Cows were never going to bring back in field, despite a courageous effort from Dearden to run it along the dead ball line and slice through the chase. In the end, Lachlan Fitzgibbon downed him with a clinical ankle tap, and the Knights had the dropout that might restore their flow.
Ponga now stepped into organiser mode, orchestrating plays on the left and centre, as a Robson ruck error got them six again. They were accelerating, and Townsend knew it, slamming in for a bone-crunching one-on-one with Crossland that robbed the set of its synergy, as it all ended with a whimper on the right, where Tuala lobbed the footy past Young and over the sideline. Even worse, Jack Johns was down in backplay on the next set, clutching his wrist in pain as the Cowboys continued to work it up the park.
Luki almost busted through the line, and reached the Newcastle forty in the process, before Feldt flattened Lee and copped an accidental elbow in the face for good measure. Johns was off the field as Townsend chipped to the right, where Nanai caught it on the full, and spun over beside the right post, beneath a cascade of Knights jerseys, as Gerard Sutton called no try but sent it upstairs to check. The replay confirmed the on-field decision, showing the toughest defence of the game in slow motion as Best got under Nanai as the pack rolled in.
Even worse for the Cows, Feldt had been unmarked and roaring for it out on the wing, turning this whole sequence into a potential rhythm-shifter if the Knights could secure a repeat (at least) on their next set. That became a considerably harder task once Lee left the park for an HIA, off the back of that elbow from Feldt. He wouldn’t return from the sidelines, while North Queensland got seven tackles on their next set, although they were only two in when Jacob Saifiti dove on a loose Hiku carry.
No sooner had the Knights glimpsed this shift in momentum, however, than Daniel Saifiti put it down, and the speed of that changeover was enough to galvanise the Cows into putting Nanai across the chalk after all. He took the first tackle, and for a moment looked like he wouldn’t play any further role in this set, nursing what appared to be a hand injury only to re-inject himself at the end, when he collected the footy as it ricocheted off a Feldt-Tualagi contest, and pivoted twice off the left boot to beat Ponga and Croker to the line.
Backrowers aren’t supposed to move like backliners, but nevertheless Nanai made it work, cementing his position as top tryscoring forward of the 2022 season (7) after Haumole Olakau’atu (5), and Keaon Koloamatangi, Liam Martin and Sitili Tupouniua on four apiece. Holmes added another conversion to make it thirty on the board, and the Cows were now almost double Newcastle, who had a grim job on their hands as they hit the final quarter. The last thing they needed was to devolve into one of their messiest periods since the break.
First there was an obstruction from Fitzgibbon, then an error from Simi Sasagi, and finally a scrum infringement from Croker, all of which set up Taumalolo to collect a Townsend dummy half pass and trample over a Crossland tackle on the right. In one of the closest calls of the game, however, the Bunker deemed that Nanai, who had been running the lead, had come slightly off his line to obstruct Fitzgibbon, even though the big second-rower had also plunged in for the chest-on-chest contact himself. With fourteen to go, Newcastle still had a chance.
Like Nanai before him, Taumalolo followed his missed try with a big effort on the line, storming in for a David-and-Goliath contest with Ponga, who did just enough with the ankle tap to ensure that big Jason lost the Steeden just as he was reaching out to put it down. It was a critical rallying-point for a Newcastle outfit who had lost Johns to a suspected broken arm, as was a big Tuala jam on Feldt as he broke into space and set his eyes on the line, forcing the cult winger to lob an awkward one off the side of his boot.
As the seventy minute mark came and went, and the Knights hit the ten, we arrived at one of the last tipping-points of the game, so it must have been agonising for Adam O’Brien to see Fitzgibbon put down a standard Crossland pass into a perfectly-timed low shot from Townsend, who iced the cake with an effortless assist a few sets later. Booting it calmly to the right edge, he timed it perfectly for Luki to collect on the full, tuck into his chest, and reach over for a one-handed putdown, Best on his back, without breaking his stride.
The sheer simplicity and elegance of this Townsend-Luki combo was the last note of the game. Not a single Knight had contested the ball, while O’Brien had his head in his hands in the coaches’ box, as he stared down seven straight losses. On the other side of the Steeden, the Cows had four on the trot, proving that their top four position was no fluke as Townsend ended the restart with the most dastardly spiralling bomb so far. To his credit, Ponga took it, landing on his back with a boot on the line to get his men seven tackles to play with.
By this stage, the extra tackle was good mainly for preventing North Queensland getting any more position, as was a pair of restarts, from Neame and Hess, and a high shot from Feldt, that made this the last great acceleration of field position this evening. For, despite a pair of charges from Thompson and Randall up the middle, Best knocked on up the left, where Hiku came up with it, Ponga gave away a penalty for a slow peel, and then bumped a Dearden grubber dead at the other end of the park as the Cows got a dropout for the last four seconds.
In the end, they didn’t bother taking it, content with a 36-16 lead, and yet another notch in their extraordinary resurgence in 2022, as they start to glimpse the peak of the Johnathan Thurston era in terms of sheer footy flow. Newcastle put up a decent competition at first, but that just made their second stanza all the more troubling, so they’ll be looking for a big one over the Bulldogs for the first match of Magic Round, while the Cows will be hoping to pile on the points when they take on a weathered, but not beaten, Wests Tigers outfit on Sunday.