For the first time since the Johnathan Thurston era, the Cowboys have won five games in a row, while tonight’s 36-12 decimation of the Wests Tigers marked the first time in club history that they’ve put down thirty or more points in four successive matches. The Tiges might have held their own in the first stanza, and suffered when Luke Brooks left the park with a hamstring complaint in the second, but there’s no doubt that North Queensland are on the verge of their first really epic epoch since Thurston left the club at the end of 2018.
In fact, the last few games have clarified that the Cows have been in a transitional state in the wake of Thurston’s departure, building towards a new club culture that has finally crystallised in 2022, making next week’s clash with Melbourne a critical ordeal by fire as they fight their way towards a top two berth. Yet where the Storm struggled against a resurgent Penrith last night, Murray Taulagi delivered one of the best NRL assists of all time, while Reuben Cotter capped off a superb first forty with one of the best ever debut tries from a front rower.
In other words, the Cowboys were superlative here, controlling the park with the mastery we’ve come to expect from Melbourne and Penrith. A fair few close calls went their way, but this was the kind of match when you make your own luck, and capitalise on the chances you get, which the Tigers largely failed to do, especially in the final quarter, and despite Jacko’s heroic effort to do the work of two halves. It was a poetic ending to Magic Round, since North Queensland are finally glimpsing the magic of the peak Thurston era.
Jordan McLean took the first hit-up, and Zane Musgrove did well to shut down Tom Gilbert, but even so Jason Taumalolo made big metres to hit halfway, before Starford To’a took Chad Townsend’s first kick on the full. Gilbert came in to get his own back on Musgrove midway through the Tigers’ first set, but still the big prop made decent post-contacts, while Luke Brooks took control by swinging the Steeden back to the right edge, where North Queensland contained it, and were forced to start their next set right on the chalk.
Peta Hiku tried to build space with a no-looker up the right edge, but he popped it too hard and fast, forcing Kyle Feldt to really scramble to clean it up. The Cowboys already didn’t have much position on this set, so by the time they got to the kick, Junior Tupou was in place to catch it at the twenty, before copping high contact from Gilbert for his first touch in top-tier footy. Again, the Tigers were enterprising, hitting the ten by the fourth play, when Brooks and Hastings had their first real synergy of the night.
For a moment, Brooksy seemed to be considering whether to boot it, but read his halves partner’s prescience perfectly, shifting the footy across for Jacko to hold up the line for a subliminal instant before slotting through a crafty grubber that Murray Taulagi only just cleaned up on the dead ball line. It was an agonising throwback to the Tigers of old, then, when Kelma Tuilagi coughed it up early in the count, while a slow peel from Jake Simpkin totally annulled this brief short-range stint to gift the Cows the best position of the game.
Not only did they parlay it into the best acceleration of the game, and the best putdown of the game, but the best pass of the year, and one of the greatest NRL assists of all time. It started with a straightforward left sweep, as Dearden, Drinkwater and Holmes gave Tualagi just enough space to hit the corner, where Jacko bumped him into touch. In any other game, this would have been enough to shut down the try, but instead Tualagai hit back with a pass that looked better with each replay – and defied belief more with each replay.
Earlier this afternoon, Mitchell Moses had ducked out of the field of play before returning to boot the ball a second time for what was – at that point – the greatest individual moment of Magic Round so far. Tualagai totally upstaged him here, however, by flicking the footy back as he hovered in the midst of Jacko’s tackle, a couple of millimetres off the ground. Even finding the field would have been an achievement, but Tualagi’s aim was as true as if he had both feet planted on the ground, making it easy for Drinkwater to take it clean.
Technically, Drinkwater planted the tip on the ground, but this was all Tualagi’s try, and while Holmes missed the conversion, this was a pretty sobering spectacle for the Tigers – an even better flick pass than Benji Marshall’s hallowed 2005 grand final winner. At the same time, the Cowboys couldn’t afford to get complacent now, so they steadied the ship with a series of textbook sets, the best ending with a brilliant chase to ensure To’a couldn’t make any metres after collecting a Dearden bomb inside his own ten.
Add to that Maumalo taking an age to return to his feet on tackle two, and the Tigers were still in their twenty midway through, where they got a major letoff when a Simpkin fumble turned into a contentious Reuben Cotter knock on. Even more contentious was the disconnect between the Bunker, who had deemed that Townsend’s contact on Maumalo was fine, and the medical staff, who insisted that the ex-Warrior leave the park as Joe Ofahengaue brought it to the cusp of the twenty on tackle four of the repeat set.
While the Tigers couldn’t hope to match the spectacle of Tualagi’s assist – it was a once in a lifetime play – they got some flow of their own at the back end of Jacko’s next kick. Earlier this evening, Keary and Suaalii had hit back against a resurgent Parramatta with a perfect young gun-veteran combo, and the Tigers escalated that play now. Like Keary, Jacko booted it to the right wing, but the young gun now was a debutant, Paulo, who came up with an even more agile effort under the high ball than Suaalii’s gymnastic display.
Where Suaalii had climbed over the shoulders of Perham, Garner seemed to be the main contender for the catch here, until Tupou surged in and hit the footy at speed a metre and a half in the air, where he took it untouched before tumbling onto the line, oblivious to Tualagi and Drinkwater’s efforts to wrestle him back. The young backliner seemed stunned by what he’d achieved, as Hastings added an efficient sideline kick to put the Tigers ahead for the first time tonight. With a good restart, this could be a categorical rhythm-shifter.
Instead, the inexperience in the Tigers’ backline came to the fore, as To’a reached a boot back as he caught the kickoff but didn’t quite find the chalk. All it took was a high shot from Tyrone Peachey for North Queensland to reassert their dominance on both sides of the park, as Peta Hiku fed the footy out for Feldt to make metres up the left, and then got on his bike to return to the left edge when Feldt’s second phase produced a shift back in that direction, where he showed a big dummy to defy Jacko and Garner to pop a cut-out assist to Taulagi in the corner.
This time Taulagi had just enough space to get outside Tupou, lock the Steeden in his left hand, and reach out his full wingspan to get it down. Tupou’s debut try had been a terrific riposte to Taulagi’s assist, but by scoring himself, and in the same part of the park, the winger had restored North Queensland’s flow, even if Holmes missed his second conversion attempt. On the other side of the Steeden, the Tigers were struggling to work it out of their own end, despite a Garner-Hastings offload and a near break from Jacko next time they had ball in hand.
Several of their outside backs were offside by the time Brooksy got to his kick, so they were lucky to only field a regular North Queensland set, and got more good news when word came down from the sheds that Maumalo was cleared to return. By this stage, the Cows had completed 10/10 to 7/9 sets, so the hosts were starting to tire, unable to build on Hastings kicks to both edges of the park. To’a cleaned up the first one on the right, and fed it back to Hastings, who booted it across to the left, where Tupou tried to reprise his tryscoring leap.
Without the pressure of the Cowboys chasers to climb over, he lost it clean in open air, while Feldt did well to scoop it up on the sideline and get his men back on the front foot. Yet To’a followed with his best moment at fullback to land footy-first a few centimetres in the field of play in the face of a brutal North Queensland chase, so the Tigers did well, all things considered, to get Brooks to the forty for his kick, while Broosky did even better to boot it sixty-five metres, all the way to the North Queensland line.
Nevertheless, the Cows were charged up now, and were back at the halfway line by the time Townsend showed Brooksy how elegantly and effortlessly he could go kick-for-kick, summoning a Lachie Lewis-like calm as he slotted it all the way to the right corner. Again, Brooks was tasked with restoring position, and again he delivered, landing the Steeden inside the twenty, but producing a dangerous enough bounce to force the Cows to start another set from their own line. It was disappointing, then, that his men didn’t have a chase to match it.
Worse, Simpkin came off the park a few tackles later, after slamming low into Drinkwater for what initially looked like a regulation tackle. Even when he hit the ground, the contact wasn’t too tough, but Drinkwater twisted his hip at just the wrong angle for the young hooker, who had to be checked for a serious neck injury before he was led off the park, slightly stunned, to make way for Junior Pauga off the bench. Drinkwater’s next kick looked standard, but the bounce was crazy, veering forty-five degrees backwards for Cotter to collect it on the bounce.
Brooks missed him, and To’a didn’t have quite enough leverage to down him with a single ankle tap, so it came down to Luciano Leilua to clean up this dazzling prop-turned-flyer fusion of speed and strength. It could have been a definitive play if Cotter had secured a repeat set, or offloaded to a support runner, but for the moment it seemed to have exhausted the Cowboys’ surge, as Cotter himself was put on report for what the refs called a hip drop on Tupou, but didn’t look illegal at the time, and certainly not bad enough to earn the penalty.
It paved the way for the next Tigers try, which started, as so many of their most inspiring plays have started over the last month, with a Brooks-Jacko combo. In its own way, this was one of the most elegant and energetic manifestations of this new halves pairing, as Brooksy swung from left to right to collect a Hastings ball, and then parlayed that curving momentum into a beautiful cut-out straight across the chest of To’a to Garner, who was always going to run a scintillating line to the corner with so much synergy and cohesion behind him.
Jacko capped it off with a deft sideline conversion, and beckoned to the refs to address something that had happened in the crowd, while the Tigers had already outscored their first five game average. True to the spirit of this close contest, however, the Cows hit back a few minutes later, as Townsend showcased both his kicking and passing game – along with the mercurial space between them – in the best show of leadership all night. The play started conventionally, with a kick to the right, where Musgrove was unable to contain it.
Things got stranger from here, as Cotter continued the surge of his earlier effort on Drinkwater’s bounce, and flicked it through Peachey to Townsend, who now settled into a subliminal space between kicking and passing. For a second, he seemed on the verge of booting it, hovering so mercurially at that cusp that it was hard to tell if he was dummying by the time he eventually opted to run it. He left it so long that he had to contend with a big bit from Leilua, although he had his eyes set on Feldt now, and knew just what he had to do.
Feldt caught it on a dime, and curved round for what is fast becoming his trademark run from the wing to the posts, setting up Holmes for his first conversion. North Queensland had restored their two point lead, but Cotter wasn’t done, making it a trio of great plays by bumping through the line on the restart off a Reece Robson ball, before dummying left and simply skipping over To’a to put down one of the all time front row tries – and his first try in the NRL after being denied in his debut game. With Holmes’ kick, the Cows had hit twenty.
In five short minutes, the Tigers had gone from an 12-8 lead to a 20-12 deficit, while North Queensland had proved why they’re in the top four with a scintillating 18/18 completed sets. Wests got another blow when they returned to the park without Brooksy, who was relegated to the sideline with his right leg strapped for a hamstring issue. They needed a really cohesive effort to hit back against these odds, and yet these are often the situations when the Tigers thrive, while an eight point lead wasn’t insurmountable with forty minutes on the clock.
They did well on their first defensive set, keeping North Queensland in their own end, as Townsend booted it from the forty, before Hastings started to amp his organisation up even further with a short ball for Leilua to take a strong charge up the right midway through the next count. The Tigers returned to that part of the park later in the set, where they played hot potato with the footy until it all ended with a Dearden knock-on – and then a clean take from Dearden, when the Cows sent it upstairs for one of the best challenges of Magic Round.
The visitors had wrested order from chaos, and were on the verge of settling back into their flow, thanks to a pair of offloads from Hess and Robson – until Gilbert lost the footy forward for the first North Queensland error of the night. Jacko conferred with Peachey, who had slotted into the five-eighth role, as they packed the scrum, but it didn’t help Pauga, who lost the footy into a one-on-one strip from Feldt, before To’a got done for crowding, in what felt like a critical consolidation point for the Cowboys.
No surprise, then, that Taulagi set his sights on the left corner, and while he got past Jacko and ground the Steeden cleanly, the replay clearly showed his boot grazing the left chalk. It had been a curious period for the Cows, who had enjoyed two rapid turnarounds – the Dearden challenge and the Feldt strip – and had glimpsed their greatest moments of the first stanza, but hadn’t quite managed to bring it all together, despite Brooksy’s absence from the backline. Despite their brilliance, there was a chance for the Tiges to make inroads here.
That made it all the more important for Hastings to assert his leadership, and he started by banging the footy over the right sideline to give his men a breather before they weathered another North Queensland assault. It became an augmented set when Pauga got done for crowding Hiku, and then a try for Taulagi after all, as Townsend ended with a sly grubber off the side of the boot that was too mercurial along the ground for Holmes to clean up, but sat up perfectly for Murray to take a second shot and deliver the goods on the dead ball line.
Stopping a third Taulagi showcase on the left edge had been a big motivator for the Tigers, so seeing the young backliner crash over a set later felt like a full stop on the match, even though we had thirty minutes of football to go. North Queensland were double Wests at 24-12, and sailed beyond a two converted try lead after the kick from Holmes, who was pretty lucky not to get done for being offside in the buildup to Taulagi’s putdown. One more try and the Cows would have it in the bag, and they got closer with a second successful captain’s challenge.
It came off an ostensible loose carry from Drinkwater that, upon inspection, turned into an aerial tackle from Garner, as Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow came off the bench for a stint at fullback, and wasted no time collecting a Townsend ball to break through the middle for what would have surely been an assisting run if anyone had come up in support. As it was, the Tigers got the ball back, although they were pretty low on energy now, while the Hammer was up to Jacko’s most soaring bomb so far, and won more position off aerial contact from Seyfarth.
By this stage, the Tigers looked pretty unlikely to win, so it was critical that they dam the flow of North Queensland points as the final quarter loomed. What they didn’t need was a Tamou strip to bump the Cows further down the field, where Griffin Neame, fresh off the bench, took the first tackle at the twenty, setting the stage for the most plosive assault since the break. It took all of Musgrove’s energy to support Alex Twal in the face of a charge from the Hammer, and he copped an elbow in the face to boot, insisting that he didn’t need to leave for an HIA.
His departure would have been catastrophic, but he still looked the worse for wear as the Cowboys swept it out to the left, failed to get through, and then saw Dearden step up for his most magnificent gesture as captain so far. Dodging and weaving his way through the Wests defenders, he ferried the footy back to the middle of the park, where he shot a sublime wide ball across four players for Hiku to dummy left to displace Maumalo, palm Pauga onto the ground, and put down his first try in North Queensland colours.
Holmes might have missed the conversion, but the Cows had still broken a club record to score thirty or more in four straight games, proof positive that they’re on a roll they haven’t experienced since the days of Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan. Musgrove came off the park a moment later for an HIA interchange, bringing Joffa on for a second showing from a dramatically denuded bench. Nothing was going Wests’ way, as Leilua experimented with an enterprising no-looker to the right wing, only for Garner to knock it into touch.
That’s not to say that the Cowboys didn’t have small moments of vulnerability, but that the Tigers were powerless to capitalise on them. On the next set, Townsend booted it out on the full, and Feldt was unable to save it, but Jacko’s next kick was devoid of a chase, allowing the Hammer to just stand in place and wait for the high ball to find him. A moment later, Nanai pivoted so subliminally from boot to boot that he wrong-footed Seyfarth into inadvertent high contact, as North Queensland added yet another burst of position to their tally.
On the next set, Hastings seemed to realise that the Tigers were too tired to score off a spectacular last tackle option, so he had to supercharge them midway through the count. To that end, he used play three to boot it to the right wing, where Tupou carved his way up the sideline and then sent it back inside for Jacko to chip to the left, where Maumalo took it on the full as Feldt tumbled over him. Still, the last part of the set descended to another game of hot potato, as the Cows jammed in to contain a frenetic cascade of passes.
Eight minutes from the siren, Heilum Luki was put on report for high contact on Hastings, gifting the Tigers enough field position to hit the ten with most of their count to go. Three plays in, they got the first restart of the night, off a ruck error from Coen Hess, as Hastings continued to improvise, this time with a neat grubber to the left edge that got his men a dropout when the Hammer slid in to pop it dead. Holmes went short with the dropout – possibly intentionally, since it ended up working better for the Cowboys at this late stage.
While the Tigers got to start closer to the chalk, North Queensland also had time to reset their line, although it didn’t prevent Feldt from bumping Pauga before he got the footy. Wests now had their best position of the night, so it was agonising to see Twal hit a Peachey ball at speed and cough it up just as space opened in front of the line. Even worse, Nanai took Dearden’s next bomb on the full, shrugged off Maumalo, and put it down beneath the crossbar to bring the Cowboys to their final score of 36-12, triple the Tigers, after Holmes added the kick.
Full credit to Dearden, too, for the superb handling required to scoop a bludger of a ball from Holmes off his bootstraps to get the kick going in the first place. The Tigers might have held on heroically during the first forty, but the absence of Brooks proved too much, so they’ll be sweating on his fitness, and looking to hit back big, when meet the Dogs next week. On the other side of the Steeden, there’s no doubt that the Cowboys are the real deal in 2022, making next week’s match with Melbourne a particularly exciting prospect.