A bottom of the table clash between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Newcastle Knights kicked off the eleventh round of the NRL with the Cowboys, sitting in twelfth, being favourites over the eleventh placed Knights. The winner would move into the top eight, the losers would face an increasingly steep mountain to make the play-offs.
Both sides were ordering drinks in the 2021 last chance saloon and a loss would see the season getting away from them as any hopes of a top eight finish starts to dissipate.
The Cowboys were strong from the first whistle and took seven minutes to get on the board with Murray Taulagi breaking from the forty, busting two tackles and throwing a dummy before going in ten from the touchline. Valentine Holmes added the conversion, the perfect start for the home side.
A brilliant offload from Shane Wright found Reece Robson who just had to stoop to score. Holmes added his second and the Cowboys were twelve ahead after twelve minutes.
After the Knights had a try ruled out the Cowboys went in again. Holmes was the provider with a long ball but Taulagi still had plenty to do as he shrugged off two tacklers and dropped to the ground for his second. Holmes hit the upright with his conversion attempt, the ball bouncing wide.
Sauaso Sue opened the Knights account as Phoenix Crossland and Lachlan Fitzgibbon both offloaded under the tackle and the substitute was on hand to take the pass and go over under the cross bar. Mitch Barnett added the conversion from the shadow of the posts for 6-16.
Jason Taumalolo was sin-binned on twenty-five for a high tackle as the referees continued to enforce the new NRL directive.
The twelve men conceded on twenty-seven with Enari Tuala jinking his way to the line from fifteen metres out and despite Barnett failing to add the conversion, Newcastle were right back in a game which had appeared to be drifting away from them.
Another swinging arm, this time from Cowboys Lachlan Burr saw the home side reduced to eleven men.
On thirty-one the Knights were back level when Fitzgibbon ran straight between two defenders to go in from ten metres out. Barnett added the conversion to level the scores, a situation unthinkable after the opening fifteen minutes.
Despite constant Knights pressure the Cowboys defence held on until the half time hooter. The sides going into the sheds all square at 16-16, the two sin-binnings costing the home side dear.
Newcastle took the lead on forty-six as Starford To’a took a Simi Sasagi flick pass above his head and summersaulted his way over the line to get the ball on the ground before being tackled into the corner flag. Barnett couldn’t add a tough conversion.
On fifty-three the Cowboys stopped the rot and levelled the scored when Taulagi took a Scott Drinkwater miss-out pass to dot the ball down in the left corner and come around to slightly improve the angle but it was no avail as Holmes was unable to convert four into six.
The Cowboys were playing with much more intensity and just before the hour mark Holmes ran the angle, despite an overlap being available, and went in from fifteen metres to regain the lead. Holmes added the conversion to put the home side back into a six-point lead.
A disastrous mix-up in the Knights defence, Brayden Musgrove and Kurt Mann getting on one another’s way as they tried to deal with a Drinkwater grubber kick through. The ball bounced free and into the hands of Michell Dunn to score the easiest try of his life. Holmes was wide with his kick, the Cowboys 30-20 ahead.
The game was put beyond doubt when debutant Heilum Luki crashed over the top of the Knights defence from five metres off a Jake Randall pass. Holmes added the conversion for 36-20 and a score line which masked how competitive the game had really been.
It’s the Cowboys who join a group of sides on ten points and leap into the top eight and a shot at the play-offs. The Newcastle Knights look too good to pick up the wooden spoon but it is looking like a big ask for them to make the eight.
North Queensland Cowboys: Holmes (T, 4G), Feldt, Bowen, Lemuelu, Taulagi (3T), Drinkwater, Clifford, Gilbert, Robson (T), McLean, Wright, Dunn (T), Taumalolo (SB on 25). Subs: Granville, Burr (SB on 35), Molo, Luki (T). 18th: Asi.
Newcastle Knights: Mann To’a (T), Tuala (T), Sasagi, Musgrove, Crossland, Green, Klemmer, Brailey, Saifiti D, Frizell, Fitzgibbon (T), Barnett (2G). Subs: Watson, Saifiti J, Sue (T), Jones. 18th: Hoy.
Referee: Ashley Klein.
Score Progression: 4-0, 6-0, 10-0, 12-0, 16-0, 4-16, 6-16, (SB), 10-16, (SB), 14-16, 16-16 : HT : 16-20, 20-20, 24-20, 26-20, 30-20, 34-20, 36-20 : FT.