The North Queensland Cowboys have kept their unlikely finals hopes alive with their fourth straight win, dispatching the seventh-placed Newcastle Knights 26-6 at 1300Smiles Stadium.
The Cowboys sprung out of the blocks, chalking up an early lead and never looking back as their dream runs continues.
First points came to a new face in the side, debutant Wayne Ulugia pouncing on Joseph Leilua’s mistake in attack and showing good pace in running 80 metres to score. Leilua left the ball behind as the Knights piled pressure on the Cowboys’ new right edge combination, who conducted themselves well throughout the game.
The Cowboys backed up to double the lead in the very next set, this time a Jonathon Thurston-Matt Bowen special straight out of the magic playbook. Thurston attracted Knights defenders en-masse as he shimmied right, switching the ball inside to Bowen who streaked through the thin Knights’ defence. Bowen found Tate on his hip in support, and the centre touched down under the posts to finish off an enrapturing movement. Thurston converted both early tries and the Cowboys were up 12-0 before the Knights had woken up properly.
With the Knights on the back foot and the Cowboys piling on pressure the visitors’ discipline started to slip, three successive penalties split by errors ensuring the Cowboys were never far from good field position, and it was Beau Scott failing to get back to his goal-line that opened the door for more Cowboys points, Thurston electing to take the two and duly slotting the penalty to open up a 14 point lead.
That was the extent of the scoring for the first half, despite Thurston creating another good opportunity just minutes later – the trademark dummy and run parting the Knights’ defence and Thurston grabbing the opportunity. He found Gavin Cooper on his hip after drawing Darius Boyd, but the rangy second rower lacked the pace to go all the way himself. Instead he tried to go outside to Kane Linnett, but was foiled by Aku Uate who batted the ball away. Both sides had opportunities to mount pressure but neither could capitalise, the teams heading into the break still split by 14.
An undoubtedly rousing half-time speech saw the Knights come out firing early and they struck on the earliest opportunity, a neat piece of work from Robbie Rochow putting his fullback Darius Boyd over for a try. The ball went to Rochow standing flat-footed on the left edge, but he managed to attract defence and produced a deft inside pass to Boyd who was able to fight through for the try. Gidley converted to put Newcastle back in the hunt.
The Knights had chances on both flanks to build upon their promising start to the second half but it was a short resistance, as a Dane Gagai knock-on deep within his own territory invited the Cowboys back into strong field position. Bowen showed he still has the pace of a much younger man without a collection of knee reconstructions off the ensuing scrum, easily rounding Leilua on the edge before being collared from behind. The Cowboys didn’t have to wait much longer, extending the lead back to 12 when Ulugia walked in for his double. Tariq Sims hit the line hard, spun and broke his arms free, managing to get a ball out the back. Under pressure Bowen flicked the ball on to Brent Tate, who squared up the Knights defence before going wide right to Ulugia who was able to cross unmarked in the corner.
The Cowboys were pressing on the Knights line yet again just minutes later, earning a repeat set thanks to a deft Bowen grubber and piling on the pressure again when Kurt Gidley hung on too long in the tackle and was duly penalised. Thurston opted to reinstate the 14 point margin and easily kicked the two points, putting the Cowboys up 20-6 and the game seemingly out of reach for the visitors.
It was drama of a different kind when play was stopped for a backfield injury, Ray Thompson visibly in significant distress with blood gushing from a facial wound. A replay showed the culprit to be the shoulder of Kade Snowden, which is believed to have broken Thompson’s jaw when he was hit shortly after passing. A vocal North Queensland crowd bayed for retribution and were satisfied as Snowden was sent from the field by referee Shane Hayne, the Knights reduced to 12 men for the final 15 minutes.
The home side pressed their advantage almost immediately, earning a repeat set thanks to the boot of Thurston before Robert Lui displayed his often-hyped but rarely sighted running game, dummying wide before stepping and pushing between two Knights’ defenders and crawl to the line. Thurston converted to put the game beyond reach for the Knights, the lead extending to 20 where it remained for the rest of the game.
The Cowboys now jump into the eight and face Cronulla and the Wests Tigers over the final fortnight, while Newcastle need to overcome Brisbane and Parramatta to confirm their place in the finals.