It’s a long way from WIN Stadium to 1300SMILES and an even longer way from where the Dragons are at and the football craftsmanship that the Cowboys have forged over the last twelve months. Given how much the last couple of rounds have turned on penalty goals, misplaced field goals and grinding, mechanical football, it was satisfying to see such a neat game yesterday evening in Townsville: no penalty goals, no field goals, no major bunker controversies, just a string of tries and conversions. Good old-fashioned football and a good old-fashioned drubbing, with the Cowboys bringing in a 36-0 victory over the sorry Dragons.
As match after match this season has proved, the Cowboys function better as a team than any other outfit in the competition. While Johnathan Thurston is probably the best player in the world, North Queensland never seems like a vehicle for his celebrity. Instead, every player shines in a different way, with different players taking the spotlight from week to week. This kind of margin, however, gives the Cowboys a real chance to demonstrate the breadth of their line-up and although their Grand Final victory leaves no doubt that they have what it takes to function in the modern Rugby League world, they often feel more like an old-fashioned stable of professionals than an aggregate of player trades, calculated risks and salary cap negotiations.
Last night that breadth was particularly evident and particularly impressive. Whereas Melbourne won earlier in the day off the back of a couple of Cooper Cronk tries and a last-minute flourish from young gun Richard Kenner, here the score was spread evenly across the team, with Gavin Cooper, Scott Bolton, Javid Bowen and Justin O’Neill all putting in tries and Kyle Feldt managing to score two, in yet another argument for his Origin viability this year. All six were perfectly converted by Thurston, whose kicking composure lent the game an incredible calmness and assurance without ever being in the least flashy or dramatic. While this kind of drubbing can sometimes be a bit boring to watch – after a while, you get the point – it was incredibly satisfying, and even beautiful, to see the Cows operating as such a seamless, professional unit. Only Cooper’s try in the 25th minute caused a brief moment of bunker controversy, but by Round 5 that seems to be part and parcel of the 2016 game.
In fact, this was possibly the least flashy game of the season so far, even though it was one of the most decisive victories. The professional team par excellence, everyone on the Cowboys does their job in a modest way, which is perhaps why their wins never seem arrogant, or never seem to come with any attitude, especially against the grass roots, low-key backdrop that is 1300SMILES Stadium. That stability was all the more impressive in that this was the first game in which Paul Green has mixed up the Grand Final 17, bringing on Javid Bowen to replace Kane Linnett at no. 4 after last week’s match against the Broncos.
As the nephew of one of the most iconic North Queensland players after Thurston – Matty Bowen was actually in the stands – Javid had a lot riding on his head, but he calmly put in a try in the 55th minute in one of the most memorable moments in the game. Although you couldn’t quite call it a turning-point – the Cows were too far ahead by that point – it did feel like the moment at which it became clear that this was going to be a landslide. While some young guns have felt a bit showy this season – Kerrod Holland comes to mind, and I’m a Bulldogs fan – it was great to see how seamlessly Bowen just slotted back into the game and didn’t make a fuss about his achievement. With such a prestigious uncle, he didn’t really need to, and his professionalism after his try was almost as impressive as his dexterity in scoring it.
On the other side of the Steeden, things were in a pretty sorry state for the away team. Unlike Melbourne’s win over the Knights, or South Sydney’s win over Manly, this was one victory where you didn’t really feel the potential or pride of the vanquished team. The Dragons’ malaise was all the more unusual in that the return of Benji Marshall should have given St. George-Illawarra a bit of a surge. Whether because there’s been so much uncertainty about Benji’s future, or because he’s made it clear that he’s prepared to leave the Red V, his presence seemed to put a dampener on things, and he behaved fairly impulsively and erratically on the field, coming dangerously close to a couple of full-blown brain snaps, in what often felt like a parody of Cronk’s comeback performance after the loss to the Sharks last week.
Compounding the Dragons’ despair was the fact that the Cowboys managed to score the same number of points over the course of last night’s match as St. George-Illawarra have scored over the entire season. On the back of that statistic, Paul McGregor made it clear that even the most prestigious players on the team will be considered replaceable if this kind of form continues. The bitterness of the defeat was all the more palpable in that it felt as if moving Josh Dugan back to the back was going to spell a bit of a fresh start for the Dragons, especially after last week’s last-minute moment of inspiration against the Panthers at WIN Stadium. Comparing his performance last night with James Tedesco’s stirring effort against the Sharks, I’m amazed that he’s still considered a lock for Origin fullback, but that may just be my Tigers bias coming through.
Thing couldn’t have been more different, then, for the Cowboys and the Dragons. Whereas St. George came away with their sixth straight away loss and have barely scored a try per game this season, Round 5 marked the first time in over a decade that North Queensland have won their first three home games, as well as the second time this season that they haven’t conceded a single point at 1300SMILES, following on from their 40-0 smashdown of the Roosters in Round 3. While that undoubtedly has a lot to do with the Cows’ form, it’s also a testament to 1300SMILES itself as the most galvanising and motivated of all NRL venues , even or especially as it also happens to be the most modest or down-to-earth.
Indeed, as the NRL moves to host more and more games at Allianz, ANZ and other big venues, the head honchos could stand to learn a bit from the Cowboys’ home spirit. I went to the Rabbitohs-Bulldogs clash at ANZ last week, and while it had one of the biggest turnouts of the season there was no way the crowd could give the players the support they needed. While it’s great that remote teams like the Cowboys, the Warriors and the Raiders are going to retain that local spirit, it does feel a bit worrying to think how Sydney Rugby League is going to fare over the next couple of years. Still, the biggest immediate concern to come out of last night’s match lies with the Dragons, and how they’re going to cope over the next couple of weeks, which see them travelling to both Suncorp and Cbus in a miniature Queensland tour that has to be a bit intimidating for one of the weakest New South Wales outfits at the moment. For my money, this fortnight may induce McGregor to make some drastic changes, but even if he doesn’t, it’s clear that the Dragons really need to regroup and consider their strategy if they want to avoid becoming cellar-dwellers by the end of the year.