Although they put in a crushing performance against the Rhinos in the World Club Series, last night’s match in Townsville was the first time that the Cowboys have really played like the reigning NRL premiers. So amazing was the vibe and energy at their home ground that you might as well have called it 8099SMILES, with the Cows delivering their biggest ever win over the Roosters, capped off by a try by Kyle Feldt in the 80th minute that felt like a flashback to the single most exhilarating second in last year’s Grand Final. With tries from Linnett, Winterstein, Coote, Bolton, Morgan, Taumalolo and Feldt – all perfectly converted by Thurston – the Cowboys proved, once again, that they are the NRL team par excellence. Whereas most other units in the competition feel like vehicles for a couple of big names, virtually everyone in the North Queensland outfit feels like they contribute equally to the overall performance. Week by week, different players distinguish themselves – the difference last night was that every player was performing at their peak.
Of course, Thurston dominates it all: if Morgan, Taumalolo and Feldt all managed to score a try in the last five minute, it was Thurston’s consistency with conversion that allowed North Queensland to achieve such an emphatic lead. Similarly, last night was an object lesson in Thurston’s judiciousness as a halfback: at every moment, he made the right choice about when to pass, when to kick and when to make a run for it. In many ways, Thurston’s gift and grace is that he is a celebrity player but never makes the Cowboys feel like a vehicle for his celebrity either: he’s modest enough on the field to give every one of his teammates a chance to shine, with Jason Taumalolo putting in a particularly impressive performance last night, rousing the forwards in the first thirty minutes to establish the early lead the Roosters were never able to break. At this point, even Thurston’s most brilliant moves feel casual, and part of what made last night’s match so incredible was the sense that the Cows weren’t even firing on all cylinders, but just decimating the Chooks with a fairly laidback, relaxed brand of football.
Of course, the Roosters are a fairly depleted outfit at the moment. Not only are Boyd Cordner, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Mitchell Pearce all out for the count, but last night Dale Copley was taken off with a pectoral strain while Ian Henderson suffered what will probably be one of the most gruesome injuries of the season: a buckling leg break under Jackson Hastings towards the end of the second half. Somehow the brutality of that injury seemed to summarise the Roosters’ whole plight – especially since it was inflicted by a fellow teammates – as the Tricolors and former three-time premiers suffered their first hattrick of defeats since the early 1950s. While it’s clear that we’re dealing with a depleted team, there was also the sense of witnessing the end of a dynasty, especially given the recent news about Billy Slater. Between them, the Roosters and the Storm have probably been the two key “prestige” teams in the game over the last half-decade, and there’s something strange about seeing their golden eras starting to wane.
Of course, weakness can also be a source of strength, and both the Roosters and the Storm are amongst the most promising teams in the game in term of their potential, as well as their stable of young guns. However, last night was also a reminder that Jayden Nikorima and Jackson Hastings may have been a bit overhyped in the pre-season, since while they were more than competent their judgment was a bit questionable at moments, and wasn’t helped by a fairly underwhelming performance from Blake Ferguson, who’s yet to really mature into his fullback role. I never thought I’d say it, but Will Hopoate seems to be settling to into fullback quicker than Fergo – the Roosters really need to get him up to speed to navigate the coming months. Similarly, while Shaun Kenny-Dowall still seems to be playing on a post-acquittal high, his jailbreak dashes weren’t really up to the task last night either, with two North Queensland tries scored down his side of the field in the first eight minutes.
Nevertheless, you can’t simply put down the Cowboys’ victory to a sloppy Sydney side either. It was clear that we were dealing with the current champions, with Paul Green announcing that he plans to send the same seventeen players from last year’s Grand Final to face off against the Broncos for the rematch next weekend at Suncorp. I was at Pirtek last weekend to see the Cows take on the Eels and the transformation last night couldn’t have been more intense: whether it’s playing at 1300SMILES, whether it’s the poor Roosters form, or whether it’s simply that they’ve needed a couple of weeks to warm up, the Cowboys are firing at full capacity again. One difference, however, is that Coote seems to be coming into his own in a new way, scoring the fiftieth try of his career to leave the score at 18-0 just before the break. Unlike most other high-profile teams, the Cows have never really felt defined by a star fullback – they’re not a star vehicle – but if his performance last night is anything to go by, Coote may fall into that role if he renews his contract with North Queensland over the next twelve months. Here’s hoping that he – and the rest of the team – bring the same level of energy to Friday’s showdown at Suncorp.