Seeing the Cowboys and Broncos competing at third and fifth is a spectacle in itself after the last few years, but Saturday night’s game in Townsville was also a particularly rollicking ride, as Brisbane lost Te Maire Martin, and failed to survive some big onslaughts from the hosts, but still glimpsed a comeback with two rapid tries in the last ten minutes. In contrast to the brutal wet weather footy in and around Sydney, Townsville was in party mode, as a packed stadium shifted from spectators to celebrators as North Queensland racked up 40.
Of course, the big headline tonight was the return of Adam Reynolds from the rib injury in Brisbane’s courageous win over Canberra in Round 14. That the Broncos have exceeded even their most devoted fans’ wildest expectations, hit fifth on the ladder, and even become a genuine top four prospect, is largely a tribute to the vision and focus that Reyno has brought to Suncorp, but he wasn’t quite able to summon that leadership tonight, putting in some of his spottiest kicking of the season as Cowboy after Cowboy targeted his torso.
Buoyed up by the prospect of securing his Origin III berth, Selwyn Cobbo took the kickoff, before Patrick Carrigan showed he could get stuck into it with a heavily strapped right knee, taking the footy on both the second and fourth plays to get Reynolds in place to boot it just outside his forty. Reyno didn’t get the angle he was after, perhaps because he was pre-empting some shattering pressure that didn’t come, allowing Val Holmes to curve around and take it clean, as North Queensland rolled into their first attacking set of the night.
They moved faster than Brisbane, with Holmes getting outside Kotoni Staggs and flicking it out to Murray Taulagi, who made good metres up the left and in turn popped a beautiful one-handed offload out to Scott Drinkwater, who broke through the line and twisted through a Corey Oates leg tackle until he was facing his own goal. Yet the Cows also peaked quicker, for the moment, as Drinkwater now tried to force the play, and offload the footy back to his winger for some third phase, coughing it up to let the Broncos off the hook.
Tom Gilbert now got into first gear, making massive contact with Carrigan early in the next set, and almost crashing over a minute later, after the Cows received the first penalty of the night when Kurt Capewell was called offside within the ten. Only Reyno was in place to wrap his arms around the big second-rower’s left leg and prevent him smashing over, with Payne Haas coming in as backup, although Brenko Lee wasn’t able to replicate this individual brilliance beneath Drinkwater’s final chip kick to the right edge.
While Brenko got both hands to the ball, he opted to tap it back instead of taking it clean, to avoid risking the dropout with a horde of Cowboys swarming around him. Instead, he almost conceded a try, losing the footy behind the line, where Billy Walters swung at it again, before Capewell desperately toed it into touch. Yet Lee started working his way back from his error right away, containing Drinkwater after he took a promising ball from Jeremiah Nanai, before Te Maire Martin followed Reyno with a superb close-range trysaver.
This time it came in the middle of the park, where Chad Townsend pivoted so dramatically off the left boot that he sent Walters careening to ground in an effort to catch him, leaving Martin as last line of defence. Coming in low, he richocheted the footy free with such intent and conviction that he galvanised Brisbane into one of their best sets of the game – all the way up the park, culminating with a superb Reyno chip to trap Drinkwater on the chalk.
It was a minor miracle that Drinkwater managed to get back into the field of play at all, although from there the Cows didn’t waste any time showing they could rack up position just as easily as the southern Queenslanders. Hemmed in by a three-man pack, Taulagi still managed to get a very late offload away for Holmes to dart off the twenty on tackle two, while Kyle Feldt parlayed that momentum into a loping run up the middle, and Drinkwater reasserted his dominance at the other end of the park with the most dangerous kick so far.
A tortuous spiralling bomb, it forced Martin to get down on his knees and reach out both hands in anticipation, and while he had time enough to prepare for the catch, he lost sight of the footy at the last instant, knocking on to get the hosts right back on the Brisbane line. This effectively cancelled out the momentum of his hit on Townsend, so Ezra Mam mirrored it on play one out of the scrum, coming in low and hard on the North Queensland captain to lift him clean off the ground, forcing the Cows to promptly shift from left to right.
Buoyed up by seeing his contact on Townsend repeated in this way, Martin came in hard to prevent Taumalolo smashing over from close range on the left, while Mam made it a trio of big defensive plays by hitting Nanai just as brutally before the crossbars. Ever the craftsman, Nanai got the offload away now, but the Cowboys were dishevelled by the pressure of the Brisbane line, and so Tom Dearden sent the harbour bridge ball too far, soaring it over Feldt’s outstretched arms, and then over the sideline, to get Brisbane back on the attack again.
They scored almost immediately – not off this next set, but off the first play of the following set, when Peta Hiku slammed into a three-man hit-up from Walters, Staggs and Jensen, and flicked a chaotic offload out the back without a Cowboy in sight, forcing Townsend to get on his bike to reach it at the chalk. He stretched out both hands, and actually had it on his chest when Staggs wrapped around him, just shy of the line, forcing the footy free for his tackle partner Walters to put it down for his third career try.
With Reyno booting through the extras, the Broncos had six unanswered points, and showed their confidence by spreading it left two tackles into the restart, clearing up space for Mam to almost shimmy his way through the line. Carrigan continued to be massive, offering another two runs, the second of which ended with an offload for Walters, before Reynolds hoisted it high – too high, it turned out, as Taulagi caught it behind the line for seven tackles, before hitting back at the scoreboard early in Brisbane’s next set.
Meanwhile, Coen Hess left the park with what appeared to be a right shoulder issue, bringing Jamayne Taunoa-Brown on earlier than expected, as Hiku took the first run without the slightest hint of an offload out the back this time. The set wasn’t anything special, despite a good closing kick from Townsend, but that made it more special when Taulagi intercepted a pass from Reynolds to Staggs, the man who had set up the try against the run of the play at the other end of the park, before curving round to plant it behind the posts.
Taulagi appreciated the irony, reaching back for a cheeky glance at the Brisbane defence as Holmes added the extras to make it six points apiece, before the hosts got a augmented restart whem Dearden reached his boot back to graze the chalk on the kickoff. Reynolds was furious with the decision, imploring for a challenge, but he got no joy, while the Cows were inside the ten by play two, where Taumalolo came up with an equally precarious offload to Hiku, and was lucky to have Dearden in place to showcase some pretty clutchy handling.
North Queensland were peaking now, as a Townsend grubber and Holmes chase forced Staggs to clean it up behind the line. Reyno’s night got worse as he booted it out on the full, putting the hosts in the lead for the first time when Holmes added the penalty kick. Successive errors from Oates and Feldt might have reset the balance of the game, but it quickly swung back the Cowboys’ way when Reynolds, clearly still fuming from the Dearden decision, sent it too far once again, as the Broncos started to really struggle to hold their line.
It was a small victory, then, when Carrigan prevented Taumalolo getting another offload away, and even better when Staggs prevented Holmes from crossing over on the left edge. Val still got it away, so Drinkwater had the kick, but Capewell immediately shifted the rhythm by taking it on the full and flicking it out for Oates to break through the line. Townsend shut him down, but knocked on in the process, giving the Broncs a bump up field that Mam seized with a kick on the second, after realising that Drinkwater was still caught in the line.
Reynolds made the right decision to take the two, not merely because this levelled the board, but because it provided him with some necessary catharsis after the penalty kick that came off Dearden’s step-back. From this point he was more his cool and collected self, albeit struggling with his ribs, as Carrigan, still in Origin mode, took his seventh run on the restart. Mam capped it off with a second kick, again targeting Drinkwater, but this time with a soaring bomb that gave his men ample space to prevent him making any metres on the return.
Luciano Leilua came off the bench a moment later for his first stint in Cowboys colours and his 100th NRL appearance, lending his heft to a set that ended with Drinkwater showing Mam he could go bomb for bomb with the best of them. Leilua was in place to ensure that Cobbo, who had slipped into fullback with Martin off the park, was cleaned up as thoroughly as Drinkwater before him. In the end, Mam lost this battle of boot, and failed to make it a trilogy of great kicks, by lobbing his next one over the sideline on the full.
This was a perfect moment for the Cows to consolidate, so it was a real surprise when Taunoa-Browne lost it a play later. They sent it upstairs, claiming a Walters strip, and got it immediately – a good read, since this hadn’t been at all obvious in real time. Again, Holmes took the two, and the home team had the lead, as Leilua took the kind of barnstorming run that makes him such a loss for the Wests Tigers, busting through a couple of defenders and winning a second effort from Walters, who lost Townsend’s kick behind the line too.
It had been a rough few minutes for Walters, although this trilogy of errors paled in comparison to Mam’s hit on Drinkwater, one of the most plosive pieces of contact this round. Even so, the Cowboys had a dropout, and very nearly had a try, since Leilua came within a millimetre of getting the footy down with one finger before Walters, still roiling around beneath the crossbar, managed to kick it out of his grasp. The first forty had reached peak volatility, and peak defensive desperation, as Reyno booted the dropout with five to go.
By this stage, North Queensland had a staggering 23-0 tackles in the opposition twenty, so it was a real victory that the Broncos managed to keep it a two-point game heading into the sheds. Put that down, in large part, to Cobbo, who recovered a Drinkwater dab, made his way back into the field of play, tucked it under his arm, and surged on to the Cowboys’ forty, getting Mam in place for a spiral kick to the left edge, where the bounce careened so crazily away from Hiku that Feldt almost had time to get to it.
In a first stanza with so much end-to-end footy, this was the best charge so far, galvanising the Broncos into holding their line courageously on the next North Queensland set, clearing up much more space for Brenko Lee to bring it back in the same spot as Mam, before Leilua conceded his first penalty in the Cowboys jersey, by failing to get square at marker. Kobe Hetherington may have coughed it up a few plays later, but Brisbane had stayed strong against the third best attacking team, and could hold their heads high on the siren.
In contrast to this tightly fought 10-8 half of football, the second stanza was a tryfest, as the Broncos put down 18 more points, and the Cowboys notched up 30. The hosts got it rolling, as a tough run up the middle from Tom Gilbert put Nanai in place to break halfway on the third, Oates met massive contact from Nanai and Feldt on the return, Cobbo copped the same from Gilbert, and Brisbane only got a pair of charges from Haas and Flegler before Staggs laid fingertips on Reyno’s first boot back to grant North Queensland a seven tackle set.
Reynolds’ rib injury might have been a factor here, since he had ample time to angle the ball but still didn’t come up with a strong strike, although the Broncos didn’t have any time to reflect on it, since a slow peel from Keenan Palasia got the hosts the first burst of field position since the break. Holmes twisted and broke through a Brenko Lee tackle on the third, Dearden took on the line in the middle, and Griffin Neame condensed all that action into a barnstorming twist-and-spin beneath the crossbar for his second try in the NRL.
Put that down, in part, to some brilliant dummy half vision from Reece Robson, who fed it fast enough to ensure that Hetherington couldn’t get firm enough contact around the waist, or Cobbo around the legs,as the big no. 17 poured between the posts. Holmes booted through the two from right in front, and the Broncos had to deliver a big defensive set to hit back against this North Queensland surge, which continued into a damaging run from Leilua on tackle two, before Walter launched into Gilbert to send him clean off the turf.
This was a good hit, but it wasn’t enough to totally revive Brisbane, especially since Townsend ended with a stellar kick that Oates had to curve around to collect right on the line. Staggs had his second straight knock-on two plays later, although this time the fault lay more with Jordan Riki, who tried to force the pass when he would have done better to keep it to first phase. With this kind of speed behind them, the Cows were always going to be a danger straight off the ruck, so Staggs led a big pack to hold up Holmes on the opening tackle.
Even then, the Cows weren’t dented, matter-of-factly sending it out to the other wing, where Feldt finally got some joy after missing a few chances in the first forty, taking a scintillating harbour bridge ball from Drinkwater that defied even Oates’ wingspan, and crossing over the line untouched before Capewell made a last-ditch effort to hold him back. This was the turning-point in the game, as Feldt booted the footy into the home crowd in absolute joy, high on North Queensland pride, with all the flow that comes from being a local hero.
This was also a major milestone for Feldt, who reached the upper echelons of premiership tryscorers – 112 – in the rarefied company of Greg Alexander and Tom Mooney, two ahead of Oates. Holmes was just as clinical slicing through the two from the sideline, his hardest angle so far, sailing the Steeden straight past the right post as if he’d lined up the tee just in front. The away supporters held their breath as Reyno’s next kickoff almost wobbled out on the full, in what was fast becoming one of his spottier games with the boot this season.
In the end, it came down five metres in goal, but the Cowboys had no problem working their way up the middle without the extra position, travelling sixty metres before Townsend slotted it all the way to the ten. Brisbane couldn’t summon the same structure or speed in the middle third, so they needed some individual enterprise, which Walters provided with a deft dummy half run and offload for Mam to hit the thirty, before Reyno bounced back with one of his strongest kicks of the night, but didn’t even dent the North Queensland momentum.
Not only did Leilua take it on the full, after a Taulagi knock-back, in the face of a punishing chase from Carrigan, but Taulagi knocked it back again on the next play, when he popped a one-hander to Dearden, facing his own goal line, a second before hitting the turf. Dearden sent it on to Holmes, Holmes flicked it back to Feldt, and the big winger palmed off Capewell, dodged away from Palasia, and trampled over Jensen, breaking through the line, and almost going all the way, before Cobbo and Capewell finally downed him inside the forty.
This injected the set with an extraordinary reservoir of energy that wasn’t to be quenched by Flegler shutting down Townsend on the next play, or Oates on Nanai after that. Even when Palasia cleaned up Townsend on the last, in a rare misfire for the home side, it felt like the speed of this last set was money in the bank, an investment in a future torrent of tries that was resilient enough to withstand even a brief Brisbane surge. That was fortunate, since the Broncos got position again immediately, with an offside from Robson.
Brisbane couldn’t match North Queensland’s speed now, so they opted for a series of short plosive plays, culminating with a mad Riki run on the right that would have produced points it Dearden hadn’t wrapped himself around the young enforcer’s leg. He conceded a fresh set in the process, Haas slammed over the line on the first tackle, and generated enough speed to tumble the pack of defenders with him in goal, although once there they just prevented him getting the Stteden to ground, before Nanai hit back with huge contact on Flegler.
They should have received six again a play later, when Mam grubbered into the right, and Dearden played at it, although this may have galvanised them into giving everything on the next play – a rapid right sweep that started with a wide ball from Walters to Reynolds, who schemed his way into the line and sent the cut-out to Mam for the assist that put Oates one off Feldt’s record, and one over Wendell Sailor to become fourth most prolific Bronco (111) after Michael Hancock (120), Darren Lockyer (122) and Steve Renouf (142).
Despite the work in the buildup, Reyno clearly wasn’t operating at full force, both in his engagement with the line and the frequency of his passes, and he looked distinctly apprehensive as he lined up the kick here, which made it all the more cathartic when he got it through. We were back to an eight point game, although Reynolds’ next boot was one of his poorest, thanks in part to some brutal contact from Nanai, while a silky Taluagi run allowed the Cowboys to regather as if this brief Brisbane surge had never happened.
Now was the time for North Queensland to sink back into that sublime speed, still residually visible in their game, that they’d summoned in the buildup to Feldt’s big break. Dearden showed the first signs of it in defence, slamming in for an absolute bone-rattler on Staggs, Drinkwater maintained it, by curving around to collect a Reynolds bomb that initially looked like it would be difficult enough to take on the bounce, and Nanai carved his way over the halfway line as a Mam touch gifted his men six again.
The fourth quarter had arrived right as the Cows regained their peak footy flow, as Taumalolo reached the Steeden round behind his head beneath the crossbar, but missed the turf by a millimetre, and the Broncos conceded yet another set, off a ruck error from Mam, who was having a rough couple of minutes. With only an eight point difference, this might be the most important scrum of the game, but it turned out to be the briefest, as Robson simply scooted through from the base, moving so fast Palasia and Flegler never had a shot.
It seemed like an age since Brisbane had the ball, as Drinkwater popped it out for Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, fresh off the bench, to add space up the right, before Taulagi took Townsend’s kick clean, but opted to kick instead of pass, as the Broncos finally got a touch, and Carrigan got ready to return to the field after passing a rapid HIA. Reyno, meanwhile, was really starting to show signs of fatigue, the cumulative impact of Cowboy upon Cowboy who had come in to target his torso, and question just how far he’d progressed from that rib injury.
Yet even Taulagi’s error had an element of flow to it, part and parcel of a North Queensland outfit who were confident enough now to experiment and elasticise with unusual options, and almost guaranteed to score off their next burst of position, which came virtually immediately, when Jake Turpin got done for an obstruction midway through the next set. Again, Taumalolo muscled his way towards the uprights, and while he didn’t reach the chalk this time, he provided the pivot for Robson to lob it out to Drinkwater for the next assist.
The precise width of this pass set up the young fullback for a sharp short ball that Nanai read brilliantly, breaking away from the defence a millisecond after taking possession, and from there dodging past Cobbo and sliding through Oates to put North Queensland at 34 with another superb sideline kick from Holmes. In response, Reynolds risked a short dropout, and it paid off, as Oates got the ball back, and did himself some damage in the process, requiring some attention in backplay as his men methodically made it to the red zone by tackle four.
The next play split the difference between messiness and brilliance, as Reyno got a one-handed ball away to Capewell, who juggled it, almost lost it, and eventually shifted it back to Mam, who popped it over for Palasia to make it third phase play, only for Townsend to get the footy first, and knock it on just as quickly. Reynolds seized the moment, scooped up the Steeden and shifted it aross for Cobbo to almost wrest order from chaos with a twenty-five metre charge to swerve past six or seven Cowboys and land beneath the left post.
It was agonising, then, for the try to be called back due to a double knock-on for Reyno, although the Broncos still got the scrum feed, since Townsend had made the original error. The little general was barking out orders left, right and centre, taking the first carry as his men headed right, where Lee did well to withstand a North Queensland pack set on dragging him over the sideline. Things came apart on the second tackle, however, when Nanai slammed into Reyno, having targeted him all night, to bump his pass all the way back to the forty.
Oates came up with it, but only just, and with Feldt piling on to cement this brilliant defensive period, the Broncos had to do better out of the next scrum. Reyno tried to go it alone, taking the first carry once more, and opting for a reprise of his sublime chip-and-chase against the Sea Eagles in Magic Round, only to mistime it, giving Dearden enough time to pounce. Nevertheless, Capewell stole the ball back a few plays later, before a ruck error from the Hammer gave Brisbane one more chance to capitalise on this last bout of field position.
Cobbo’s run had suggested the next try had to come off a big individual play, especially since the Cowboys’ defence were now in full swing, gathering a pack around Staggs much as they had around Lee two sets before. Alternatively, they needed a freakish play, which they got on the fourth, when Mam chipped, Townsend stuck out his right boot, Palasia took the ricochet on the full, and offloaded it back for Capewell to tap back to Oates. Jensen had little petrol in the tank on the next run, so Hetherington stepped up with a mad charge at the right post.
He was held up, but only just, injecting enough energy for Reynolds to almost crash over on the right, but for a brilliant legs tackle from Robson, before all the momentum imploded into a bathetic Carrigan kick on the last. Yet the Broncos still had luck on their side, as Taulagi lost the footy, the Cowboys lost their challenge trying to contest it, and the visitors had one more scrum – surely their last scrum – to make good on this fourth quarter surge in position. This time they got it right, as Reyno shifted his first tackle around to the left.
Oates was always going to smash over with the line he ran, hitting the Steeden at speed, despite nursing a leg niggle, and bringing Brisbane to a more respectacle 20-34 once Reynolds added the extras. They needed to draw on the Cowboys’ last-minute surge against the Sea Eagles now, and came one step closer when Cobbo drew on his own run beside the left post, leaning into the same momentum as he burst up the middle on the restart, laying the platform to crash over in precisely the same position a play later.
This was the very definition of a consolidation try, as Cobbo not only made good on missing out the first time, but added three-quarters the length of the field to it, as Reyno wasted no time adding the extras to make it a two converted try game, and a momentary hush descended on the Townsville crowd. All the Broncos needed to be contenders was a try on the next set, and all the Cowboys needed to win was another try, so the game reached peak suspense as Holmes booted the kickoff too far to grant Brisbane a restart from halfway.
It was agonising, then, when Carrigan followed his last-tackle kick by spilling it on the first play – a sad ending to what had mainly been an absolutely barnstorming game, making you wonder whether he was completely fine after his head knock. So drastic was this turnaround that the Cows had won the game in spirit now, although they got one more try to show for it, off a cold drop from Palasia. Unlike Brisbane, they only needed one scrum, as Robson surged off the base and shifted it through Drinkwater to Holmes for what became the final assist.
Taulagi was the last man to touch the ball, pivoting brilliantly to elude Staggs before burning back inside to reach out his right arm and slam it down beneath a big Brisbane pack. It was the perfect combination of speed and strength, as was the goose-step from Drinkwater in the assist, while the simultaneous fend on Reynolds said everything about the Broncos’ game tonight. Brisbane will be looking for a big one against St. George next week, then, while the Cows can enjoy a well-earned bye before they take on the Sharks to start Round 18.