North Queensland ended its run of three losses and put another dent in the Vodafone Warriors' play-off plans by surging to a 34-6 win in Saturday night's 24th-round NRL clash at 1300SMILES Stadium in Townsville.
Victory was critical for both sides, the Vodafone Warriors needing success to stay in contention for finals football while the Cowboys were desperate to revive their season after spluttering form in recent times.
In the event, the Vodafone Warriors were rarely able to make an impression with errors giving the Cowboys a significant possession advantage from the outset.
The outcome was an exhausting night defensively as they made a total of more than 360 tackles, Simon Mannering provisionally making a whopping 69 on his own and not one missed tackle. Remarkable.
The Vodafone Warriors revealed key changes when their line-up was confirmed. One was Matt Allwood recalled for his fourth outing of the season and his first since mid-May to replace the outstanding Solomone Kata (hamstring). Another was 19-year-old standoff Ata Hingano, brought onto the bench to make his debut with Nathaniel Roache starting at hooker.
There was promise when the Vodafone Warriors had their first possession with Shaun Johnson and Bodene Thompson linking with Blake Ayshford to push inside North Queensland's half.
A big shot from Thomas Leuluai on Ethan Lowe was followed soon after by James Tamou turning the ball over and then a penalty. The Vodafone Warriors had their first good ball set but Johnson’s last tackle kick sat up nicely to enable the Cowboys to get out of their danger zone.
North Queensland lapsed twice early on with kicks conceding seven-tackle sets but from the second of them the Vodafone Warriors gave the ball back after Manu Vatuvei lost it in contact. From the ensuing set Jason Taumalolo steamed ahead only to be denied by great scramble from Thompson, Simon Mannering and David Fusitu’a who forced the ball loose as the Kiwi powerhouse was in the act of trying to score.
When the Vodafone Warriors turned possession over in the next set they weren’t so fortunate, right wing Kyle Feldt racing onto a well-placed grubber to score wide out. The conversion was no issue for Johnathan Thurston putting the Cowboys on course 6-0 after 10 minutes.
In the Vodafone Warriors' first possession following the Feldt try, the usually reliable Jacob Lillyman made a rare error and the Cowboys made the visitors pay again. Once more Michael Morgan was the provider and Feldt the finisher, Morgan’s kick ricocheting fortuitously for Feldt to collect. Thurston couldn’t convert but at 10-0 after 15 minutes the outlook was ominous unless the Vodafone Warriors could tighten up urgently and find a way of completing a set.
They did through debutant Hingano, on the field early to replace an injured Ken Maumalo. In the reshuffle hooker Roache was pushed out to the right wing, Hingano going into the halves and Leuluai to hooker.
Another kick bounced around near the Vodafone Warriors’ line, Fusitu’a knocking on and leaving the Cowboys set to receive another goal-line drop out. They feasted on it, feeding the fearsome Taumalolo who powered through defenders to score, Thurston adding the two and it was 16-0 after 24 minutes.
The Vodafone Warriors couldn’t get their hands on the ball often enough. When they did they were guilty of handing it back with five errors in the first 25 minutes. They also suffered with Maumalo forced off early with a hamstring injury. Little was going right.
At last the Cowboys came unstuck in the 26th minute, turning the ball over when they were deep on attack.
The Vodafone Warriors put together their best set of the night, Johnson’s bomb to the Cowboys’ left put down by Antonio Winterstein. From the scrum they worked through Leuluai, Mannering and then Hingano, the 19-year-old serving up a lovely ball for captain Ryan Hoffman to carve through for his second try of the season. Johnson’s conversion had the scoreboard reading a healthier 6-16.
However, Johnson then put the ball out on the full from the set after the restart. More goal-line defence and this time they defused a Morgan grubber.
The heat kept coming with the Vodafone Warriors forced to defend three goal-line sets on end. They did it well and then it was a fourth set after another goal-line drop out but this time it was too much, Thurston putting Justin O’Neill through on the right edge.
The Vodafone Warriors had done so well to climb back to 6-16 but right on halftime they found themselves 16 points adrift at 6-22.
Considering the lack of possession – 15 sets to 22 – and the tackle totals – 200 to 121 – the halftime margin was less than it could have been. Almost freakishly, Mannering had made 39 tackles in 40 minutes.
The second half opened with the Cowboys engineering another goal-line drop out, starting where they left off in the first 40 minutes. They couldn't profit initially, guilty of some sloppy play on their left edge.
The Vodafone Warriors headed into good ball territory off a penalty only for Johnson's kick to be cleaned up.
Fusitu'a defused a threatening kick well on his line but immediately possession was lost again. Cue another stint of goal-line defence. They showed real steel to turn the Cowboys away but had to find a way out of their own end.
While they achieved it once they weren't so lucky the next time, the ball lost in contact to give the home side another shot and a try as well when interchange dummy half Ray Thompson blasted over from close range. Thurston's conversion ensured it was going to be a long half as the score-line surged to 28-6.
There was another injury concern for the Vodafone Warriors with prop Ben Matulino going into the sheds after a head knock.
From the restart the Vodafone Warriors went short and won the ball, eventually going right via a bomb. It didn't come off.
Most of the play was happening at the other end as the Cowboys kept applying the blow torch forcing goal-line drop out after goal-line drop out. At one stage the Vodafone Warriors defended four sets on end.
Through it all Mannering was making tackle after tackle, into the mid-60s with 10 minutes still to play.
The workload had to tell and it did when Morgan carved through for North Queensland's sixth and last try of the night to extend the margin to 34-6.
The Vodafone Warriors barely topped 1000 metres in total with Vatuvei (144 metres from 16 runs) the only player to top 100 metres or even come close to it.
The Vodafone Warriors now head home to finish the regular season with back-to-back home games against Wests Tigers and Parramatta.
1300SMILES Stadium, Townsville
North Queensland Cowboys 34 (Kyle Feldt 2, Justin O'Neill, Jason Taumalolo, Ray Thompson, Michael Morgan tries; Johnathan Thurston 5 conversions).
Vodafone Warriors 6 (Ryan Hoffman try; Shaun Johnson conversion).
Halftime: 22-6 Cowboys.
Referees: Ashley Klein and Adam Gee.
Vodafone Warriors | David Fusitu'a; Ken Maumalo, Blake Ayshford, Matt Allwood, Manu Vatuvei; Thomas Leuluai, Shaun Johnson; Jacob Lillyman, Nathaniel Roache, Albert Vete; Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman (c); Simon Mannering. Interchange: Sam Lisone, Ben Matulino, Blake Ayshford, Ata Hingano.