Saturday night was the epitome of blockbuster football, as the Cowboys hosted the Storm before the Chooks took on the Panthers. It was second against third at QCB Stadium, where Melbourne rocked up without Jahrome Hughes or Ryan Papenhuyzen, and Harry Grant started in the halves. They’d lost cruelly to Penrith the week before, so they were raring to prove themselves as contenders in 2022 tonight, but couldn’t have possibly expected the utter humiliation – there’s no other word for it – they’d get from the North Queenslanders.
On the other side of the Steeden, the Cowboys had been peaking, and with five wins in a row were at third on the ladder, their greatest achievement being their 35-4 win over Parramatta in Darwin a month before. Defence had been Todd Payten’s target in 2022, and as a result they had conceded nineteen fewer points per game than in his debut year, so a win over Melbourne tonight, in front of a sold-out Townsville crowd, might well be the critical statement of their early-mid season, as well as Payten’s greatest glory as Cows coach so far.
Still, even the most ardent North Queensland supporters couldn’t have imagined that they would keep Melbourne to a single converted try, keep the opposition out entirely in the second stanza, and deliver one of the best quarters in club history after the break, and all after Kyle Feldt was taken from the park for a suspected ACL at the 15th minute, and Jason Taumalolo for a knee injury at the 26th. No two men capture the belief of the Cowboys quite like these two, so it was a challenge to culture, in the deepest sense, when they departed.
While Reece Robson crossed over just after Feldt was helped off the park, this vast reservoir of North Queensland belief peaked in the third quarter when the hosts scored three tries in less than ten minutes, the first two off Dean Ieremia errors – Murray Taulagi’s best ever putdown on the wing, and a mercilessly clinical Nanai grounding on the right – and the third off some quick vision from Scott Drinkwater, before Nanai capped it off with a double, and the Cows ended with two almost-tries that were every bit as prodigious as their putdowns.
Tom Dearden flicked the footy over for Coen Hess to take the first carry, with Reuben Cotter back on the bench, while Taumalolo was well contained on the third, and Val Holmes took the first clearing kick just inside his forty. Nick Meaney was back in the no. 1 jersey, and collected the high ball, while the Storm were inside Cowboys territory, and then within their forty, off a terrific run from Marion Seve. Harry Grant defied Scott Drinkwater with a deft chip down the right, and almost got boot to ball again before Xavier Coates scooped it up.
Nevertheless, Jeremiah Nanai got it back in the scamble that ensued, and North Queensland hit back by forcing the Storm to work it out of their own ten on the following set. Now it was Melbourne’s turn to stay down their own end, thanks to the first great defensive showing of the night from the Cows, who wrapped up a Jesse Bromwich offload on the penultimate play, forcing Cam Munster to boot it inside his thirty. It was a big turnaround, then, when Grant won his next battle with Drinkwater, bumping him back in goal after he misread the kick.
Jordan McLean and Hess lifted Max King clean off the ground, and almost dumped him on his shoulders, but they couldn’t dent the Storm’s momentum – or Grant’s momentum, as the hooker-turned-half almost sent Meaney through a right edge gap a play later. Grant’s communication with Brandon Smith was less fluid out on the left, however, and so the hosts got a changeover, followed quickly by the first penalty of the night when Justin Olam took out some of the frustration of this last period by holding down Kyle Feldt a beat too long.
North Queensland responded with their first vivid sweep to the left, and yet like Melbourne their rhythm was ruptured on the left edge, due to a Holmes knock-on into some big Felise Kaufusi contact. Luckily Val’s team mates didn’t rally around his cry for a challenge, while the Storm got a penalty of their own right away, off a Tom Gilbert scrum infringement. The to-and-fro pattern of the match was accelerating, so it felt like the next team to get an extra burst of position, or to make the most of an error, might well dominate this opening quarter.
Cheese was clearly raring for a big individual play, charging up the left edge before being called back, before Taulagi came up with the best take under the high ball so far. Putting his whole body on the line, he leaped up, with Storm chasers converging on all sides, to seize the Steeden in both hands, before curling himself around it a metre in goal, and tempting Seve into a second effort. The Cows had gone from precariously defending their own line to garnering a dropout of their own, thanks to a sublime Drinkwater kick.
It was the second kick of the set, following a high ball that ricocheted off Hess. Thinking quick, Drinkwater drove it towards the right edge, where Ieremia landed on it, but not without being bundled over the sideline. As if it weren’t rousing enough for the Cowboys to go from saving a dropout to gaining one, Munster went short, before Gilbert took it on the full, dodged away from Ieremia, bumped off both Seve and Grant, looked for support, and realised he didn’t need it as he smashed through Meaney to slam down the first four of the night.
This was arguably the apex of North Queensland’s run of form over the last five weeks, the supreme play that gave them the self-belief to sextuple the second ranked team on the ladder over tonight’s game. They were in full footy flow by the time Val added the sideline conversion, so it was a big letoff for the Storm when Robson mistimed the dummy half ball to Nanai early in the restart. The Cows had struck well, but they hadn’t yet disrupted the set-for-set momentum of the game, as they found themselves defeinding their line once more.
Still, they did well to swarm Coates on the last, who had no option to offload it behind him, where Drinkwater was waiting to receive it, although this missed chance was eclipsed by the sorry spectacle of Feldt landing awkwardly on his left leg under a pile of Storm defenders, bringing Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow off the bench much sooner than expected. Given how central Feldt is to the Cowboys’ flow, they had to hit back big here, and Hess got them rolling with an offload, setting up Peta Hiku to win a crowding penalty from Cheese up the middle.
Things faltered a bit on the left edge, as Drinkwater only just secured a pass, and was bumped into a misfire to Taulagi, who had to really scramble to clean it up beneath a brutal Coates tackle. It was a good time, then, for Taumalolo to step up with a sterling charge that tempted a King error, and with Olam infringing the ruck a beat later, the Cows had recovered from Feldt’s absence with the best field position so far – and then the second try, as Nanai provided precisely the offload the Cows needed, a last-ditch flick out to Chad Townsend on the left.
From there, the skipper sent it on to Holmes, who barged into the line, and carved open a space that still hadn’t quite closed by the time he rapidly played the footy for Drinkwater to lob it back in for Robson to smash through King for another four points. North Queensland had bounced back from Feldt’s injury, and Robson had cancelled out his error on the restart, in the most spectacular way possible, settling into a footy groove that was Storm-like in its clinical precision, as Craig Bellamy seemed to intuit as he went wild in the coaches’ box.
They needed that boost too, along with Holmes’ conversion from right in front, since word had come down from the sheds that Feldt had likely done his ACL, and wouldn’t be back tonight. This time they weren’t going to stuff up the restart, as Taumalolo added to his post-contacts, and while Ieremia came up with a good take, Jesse Bromwich was now heading up the tunnel to attend to a gash above his eye, friendly fire from Tui Kamikamica when they were converging to clean up McLean in one of the biggest Storm pack efforts so far.
Yet while the Cows landed the restart, they gave Melbourne another chance almost as quickly as in the wake of their first try, as Taulagi coughed up one of the more challenging high balls so far. The purple army consolidated with one of their best sweeps to the right, but Val was waiting for Meaney, and prevented him getting the assist out to the wing, although North Queensland had a heart in mouth moment a few plays later, when Taumalolo twisted his knee, torn between Jesse Bromwich and Loeira on top, and Cheese on the bottom.
For now, he was cleared to play, as Drinkwater promptly regathered with a spiralling bomb that Meaney did well to collect on the full. Cotter spearheaded an impressive group tackle to drive Coates five metres back, and Drinkwater was gutsy to take a Munster bomb in the face of a committed chase, but the Cowboys needed one more big individual play to take total control of the game again. Instead, their next set was fairly boilerplate, apart from Townsend running the ball on the last, only to boot it as soon as purple pressure mounted.
With no big play to contend with, the Storm had a chance to build some momentum, especially with Taumalolo now off the park, as Heilum Luki trotted on to bolster the forward pack. Worse, Kaufusi wrapped himself around Hiku just as he was shaping for Taulagi, sending the Steeden awry, and getting his men a scrum from the twenty. This had to be the consolidation point for Melbourne – their first on set the North Queensland line – so it was a big letoff when King lost the ball into Loeiro, and then reclaimed it again offside.
A try now would have worked wonders for the Cowboys’ belief, but instead they came up with a second botched pass, this time from Townsend to an unprepared Nanai, gifting the visitors one more chance to make good on their last bout of field position. Again, Loeiro took the footy up the middle, and again it came free, although this time it came off a hand in the ruck from Robson, who was lucky not to get binned for his efforts. The classic Melbourne machine got into gear a mere tackle later, with a clinical try up the right side of the park.
After so much frustration during the first stanza, this was exactly the seamless spine synergy that the purple army needed. Cheese started with a wide ball to Munster, who followed with a wide one for Grant, who flicked it back inside for Kaufusi to smash through some very shaky defence from Luki, Dearden and Gilbert. It was an emphatic statement, especially in the absence of Papenhuyzen and Hughes, and yet Meaney’s conversion would be the last time Melbourne got on the board, as the Cows proceeded to pile on 24 unanswered points.
In another world, or another Storm era, this would have been the start of a standard Melbourne decimation, so it felt worrying already when Munster booted it too hard at the end of the restart, gifting the Cows a fresh tackle to commence their comeback. They needed all the help they could get, too, as news came down from the sheds that Taumalolo wouldn’t be returning either. Their next set ended messily as well, with a double knock on that saw the Storm send it upstairs to prove that Griffin Neame had made the key handling error.
The last Melbourne scrum had been a disaster for the Cowboys, so they amped up the defence here, and almost got the chocolates when Val jammed in hard on Grant. Yet in a first half that had been partly defined by misfired passes, Holmes didn’t quite time it right here, knocking the footy on himself to concede one more purple scrum before the break. Kenny Bromwich was only just held up on the left edge, and while the Storm got six again with a Hammer error, Olam flicked it forward a play later, as a critical purple set went begging.
With another five tackles they might well have cracked the North Queensland line, levelled the score before the break, and from there tipped the balance of power in the back forty. Instead, Meaney was pinged for not packing the scrum properly, and the hosts headed to the sheds on top, a worthy result for one of the best opening halves of their season. Even so, there was only a converted try between them, so the Cows would have to dig deep when they returned from the break to cement this as a worthy sequel to their win over Parramatta.
Cheese was looking grim as he prepared for Val to boot the kickoff, which Grant took and flicked over for Jesse Bromwich to drive nto the defence. Kaufusi took a strong run up the right, laying a platform for Smith to dart out of dummy half and into North Queensland territory, but Drinkwater mirrored it with equally good metres up his own right edge, and while Meaney did well with the high ball, Holmes was there to clean him up. The Cows hadn’t started particularly strong, but they were quickly returning to their first forty groove.
In response, Cheese almost busted straight up the middle, requiring three defenders to bring him down, and once again the hosts came up with an equivalent play, as Hiku risked an early ball to Taulagi to get his men out of their red zone. Still, the the visitors had delivered two very strong opening sets, so it was a big rhythm-shifter when Ieremia coughed up the next high ball. Meane got it, and sent it out to Robson, who almost crashed over then and there. Lucky he didn’t, though, since it gave the Cowboys the chance for the best try of the night.
It started on the right edge, and swept the full breadth of the park, as Dearden took the footy right into the line, and lobbed a wide one out to Hiku, who followed with the very definition of a Hail Mary ball – a no-look catch-and-pass that set up Taulagi for his greatest trio of plays in the NRL so far. First, he read the bounce beautifully, seizing it in the left hand right on the sideline; then, he read Cheese beautifully, pivoting briefly off the right boot to disrupt his defensive rhythm; finally, he realised he had to go overs, and launched himself into midair.
By the time he landed Steeden-first, contorting his whole body to make sure he didn’t hit touch, it felt like the Cowboys had won the game, since this was a conversation-stopper, and all the more so with Feldt and Taumalolo off the park. It felt almost inevitable that Val would boot through another two, while Ieremia’s night got worse at the end of the restart, when he lost all communication with Dearden, and let the kick bounce deep in goal, where there was a mammoth North Queensland pack waiting to hold him up once he finally secured the ball.
If the Cows scored now, Melbourne might have real trouble regathering in time for next week – and not only did they score, but they came up with their simplest and starkest try so far. Robson hadn’t quite been in the spotlight for the last pointscoring sequence, but he made up for it now, shaping left and then passing right for Nanai, who had too much speed and strength behind him by the time that Olam came in for a last-ditch legs tackle. Ieremia, the man whose mistakes had set up both tries, also joined the fray, but it was too little too late.
With his ninth putdown, Nanai was now sitting with Cobbo on third equal most tries of the season, just behind Oates, Coates and May on 10, and Papenhuyzen at the top of the table on 12. Conversely, you could glimpse something we rarely see in a Melbourne side – resignation, distant and subtle, but certainly there – and while they rallied in defence on the restart, North Queensland got six again late in the count, off a ruck error from Kenny Bromwich, and then six more, making it feel like a try must be imminent, as indeed it was.
Drinkwater was the man now, while Ieremia was the casualty once again, overcommitting to Dearden and so leaving the North Queensland fullback enough space to slice through the line without fear of an obstruction. Scotty didn’t even have to call on an unmarked Val on the wing – the tries were just coming easier and easier – while another effortless conversion from Holmes meant that Cows had gone from 12-6 to 30-6 in less than ten minutes. Only one of the great comebacks of the decade could prevent two successive Storm defeats.
By now, the Cows had enjoyed 78% of second half possession with 10/10 completions, while the Storm only had 2/3 to their name, along with 5-2 penalties and 4-0 restarts – and got another blow when Kamikamica coughed up the footy a set later. McLean took what felt like the first steadying run in an age for the hosts, so mercilessly had they been on the attack, but this was only the briefest reprieve for the Storm, as Nanai scooped up a Townsend grubber, bounced through Meaney, retained control, and slammed down his tenth of 2022.
This was superb ball handling from Nanai, and a critical moment in his evolution to greatness, as all the ecstastic Cowboy huddles of the second stanza now crystallised into a truly iconic moment for the club. It didn’t matter that Holmes’ conversion was their last points of the night, since this third quarter was enough to propel any footy side to the highest echelon, while it was a tribute to the North Queensland defence that they didn’t let Melbourne in again either. Sure, Papenhuyzen and Hughes were off the park, but so were Feldt and Tamaulolo.
Kenny, Grant and Kamikamica came in hard on McLean midway through the next set, as if determined to make sure his charge up the centre didn’t lay another platform, and the tide finally swung back to the Storm, who got their first penalty in an age off a high shot from Taulagi. Yet on the cusp of the final quarter, Kamikamica put it down for the second time since the break, as Craig Bellamy looked on in sober silence from the coaches’ box, and the Cows packed the scrum for what felt like it might well be the start of another torrent of points.
The left sweep on the fourth looked promising, as did Drinkwater’s crossfield chip, so North Queensland risked a challenge to prove that Munster knocked on before Hess, and while this seemed to be the case in real time, the replay showed that the big frontrower had indeed made the initial error. Once again, the Storm had a rare chance during this second stanza, and yet no sooner had they got their fifth opposition half tackle since the break (the Cowboys had 22), with a sharp charge from Cheese, than everything cascaded into chaos, as Grant flicked it forward, Munster also flicked it forward, and Munster then got pinged for verbal dissent.
This was the nadir of the game for Melbourne, so a North Queensland try here would have really rubbed salt in the wound – and for a moment it looked likely when Kaufusi followed Munster’s emotional outburst with some messy late contact on Drinkwater. It felt like the hosts had been camped out on the Storm’s line all afternoon, as Hess built on big charges from the forward pack – McLean, Carrigan, Robson – to muscle his way through a Grant-Munster convergence, and reached out his massive wingspan to slam the Steeden to turf.
Despite momentum carrying him over the chalk, this was deemed double movement, and yet there was still something about the sheer propulsive power of Hess’ charge that made it seem even less likely that we’d see a second purple try tonight. Sure enough, they didn’t do much with the bump up field, despite a brutal run from Cheese, a sharp dummy half dart from Grant, and Munster’s deepest kick into North Queensland territory for some time, which defied Holmes to gift Melbourne a scrum set that ended with a King cough-up on play two.
Drinkwater grabbed it immediately, ushering in a silky sequence of passes that saw the Cowboys back over halfway by tackle two, and while Robson flicked it forward within the red zone, Taulagi resumed the flow with arguably the individual effort of the game – banging into Seve at speed, and yet intercepting the footy so seamlessly that it was as if it had been handed to him, before setting his eyes on the line, dancing over a Grant ankle tap, and coming down with Coates wrapped around his torso, for what initially looked like a certain four-pointer.
Yet Xavier had conjured up Melbourne’s best individual effort as well here (Kaufusi’s try notwithstanding) by never giving up on the tackle, and getting himself beneath Taulagi just as he looked set to ground the footy, right when it seemed as if the try was done and dusted. The Cowboys had now come agonisingly close to two prodigious denied tries, and a tantalising return to the form of the third quarter, receiving a third disappointment when Holmes tried to muscle his way over in the left corner, but was bundled into touch by a big purple pack.
It had been eight seasons since Melbourne conceded forty points in a game – against the Bulldogs in Perth in 2014 – so this was yet another momentous letoff. MacDonald did well to glimpse space midway through the next set, but Nanai was still on fire, making the most of a nightmare bounce to almost break through the line for a full field try, tempting Chris Lewis into a hand in the ruck, and then a supposed knock-on from Munster that threatened to return us to the devolution that ended with his dissent, until he sent the decision upstairs.
Seeing Cam pull back both hands from the Meaney offload before cleaning it on the ground was a good boost for the Storm, but with eight minutes on the clock it wouldn’t mean anything if the visitors failed to pile on a couple of tries now. Since the break, Melbourne had only had a single play-the-ball within the Cowboys’ red zone, and they didn’t come close again, as Munster put boot to ball just outside his forty, but without any hope of rallying a chase around it, since the whistle blew simultaneously to signal a forward pass from Grant.
Something about this error seemed to cancel out Munster’s challenge – if only Munster’s own deflation at realising his kick could come to nothing – and from here it felt like the best that Melbourne could hope for was to keep North Queensland out for the last six minutes and set their sights on next week. They didn’t have to do too much in defence on the next set, thanks to a forward ball from Dearden, and couldn’t muster any real rhythm off the subsequent scrum, as Drinkwater fielded Munster’s next boot with a clinical collect in both hands.
The game started to collapse a bit for both sides now, as Lewis got done for crowding, Luki conceded an error, and Holmes booted through a final dropout ninety seconds from the siren. Even in the midst of this grind, however, the Cowboys stayed strong, delivering one of the true masterpieces of Todd Payten’s tenure with the club, and a good gee up for their stint against the Panthers at the start of Indigenous Round, while on the other side of the Steeden, Melbourne will be pulling out everything to decimate Manly next Thursday back at AAMI.