Fielding three NRL debutants and missing a host of unavailable stars to injury and State of Origin commitments, the Toyota Cowboys came close to upsetting the St George Illawarra Dragons in their round 17 NRL match at WIN Jubilee Oval tonight.
After an entertaining contest that finished five tries all, the home team emerged with a 27-24 victory to continue North Queensland’s winless run away from home in 2014 and move ahead of the Cowboys on the NRL ladder.
The winning try – the third of the night for Jason Nightingale – came inside the final 10 minutes and was followed by a sideline conversion and field goal from Gareth Widdop that put the Dragons out of reach.
Jason Taumalolo’s first try of the year arrived in the 80th minute but was too late to end NQ’s losing streak away from Townsville.
The Cowboys now head into the bye with a 7-9 win-loss record.
The Cowboys had four club debutants – new signing Tautau Moga had previously played for the Sydney Roosters while Ben Spina, Zac Santo and Sam Hoare were all chosen for their first NRL match. Anthony Mitchell started at hooker for the injured Rory Kostjasyn (rib cartilage). For the Dragons, Jake Stockwell started in the front-row with Englishman Mike Cooper dropping to the bench.
It was the Cowboys who mounted all of the early pressure, forcing the Dragons into two goal-line dropouts that eventually led to the opening try by Antonio Winterstein.
He took a fantastic offload from Tautua Moga and just managed to get the ball down inside the sideline with the on-field “try” call from referee Gavin Badger checked off by the video referees’ box.
Matthew Wright’s conversion attempt from the sideline missed, leaving the Cowboys 4-0 up after eight minutes.
The Dragons hit back within five minutes – a cutout pass from Gareth Widdop giving left winger Charly Runciman a free run to the corner.
A suspect last pass that wasn’t called forward led to the Dragons’ next try.
Jason Nightingale still had plenty of work to do to get across but the Cowboys were unlucky that the play wasn’t called back.
There was also some luck in the home team’s next try.
A Benji Marshall kick back towards the posts bounced back over Ashton Sims’s head and into the hands of fullback Adam Quinlan who touched down.
With their first conversion of the night, the Dragons, who enjoyed a sequence of nine sets of possession out of 12, led 14-4.
The Cowboys, who called on Ethan Lowe and Sam Hoare as their first bench subs of the night, completed their first 11 sets and mounted significant pressure in the final 10 minutes of the half.
Kane Linnett almost made it across before Winterstein did, taking a spot-on cut-out pass from Michael Morgan to collect a first-half double as half time loomed.
Lowe nailed the conversion from out wide to leave NQ down by four at the break.
It was a perfect beginning for the second 40 for the Cowboys with Tariq Sims running off a Robert Lui pass to bag a try in the opening five minutes.
With Lowe’s conversion, NQ had the lead – 16-14.
Lui also had a major hand in the Cowboys’ next try, linking with Matt Wright who put Curtis Rona over on 50 minutes.
Morgan also nabbed a third in quick time for the visitors but lost control as he attempted to ground the ball after regathering a kick ahead.
The near-miss was compounded by the Dragons scoring soon after via Nightingale after a couple of balls turned back inside from the home team.
Widdop converted to level at 20-all.
Zac Santo came on for his first minutes in the NRL just after Ben Spina joined the action for the first time – Santo going into dummy-half for Anthony Mitchell and Spina in the middle for Scott Bolton.
The key moment of the night came in the 72nd minute when the Cowboys were again mounting plenty of pressure.
A final tackle pass went to ground, Gerard Beale scooped up the loose ball, with the hint of a knock-on, and was chased almost the length of the field by Curtis Rona who eventually made the tackle just a few metres out.
Desperately trying to hold on, the Cowboys couldn’t, with Nightingale acrobatically scoring in the corner a few plays later.
Widdop’s simple 77th minute field goal from in front of posts sealed the victory.
Scott Bolton led NQ with 140 metres in attack while Ashton Sims topped the tackle count with 33.
Cowboys: 1 Matthew Wright, 2 Curtis Rona, 3 Tautau Moga, 4 Kane Linnett, 5 Antonio Winterstein, 6 Robert Lui, 7 Michael Morgan (vc), 8 Scott Bolton, 14 Anthony Mitchell, 10 Ashton Sims (c), 11 Tariq Sims, 12 Jason Taumalolo, 13 Glenn Hall. Interchange: 15 Ethan Lowe, 17 Sam Hoare, 18 Ben Spina, 19 Zac Santo.
Dragons: 1. Adam Quinlan 2. Charly Runciman 14. Peter Mata'utia 4. Gerard Beale 5. Jason Nightingale 6. Gareth Widdop 7. Benji Marshall 8. Ben Creagh (c) 9. Mitch Rein 20. Jack Stockwell 11. Leeson Ah Mau 12. Joel Thompson 13. Jack de Belin. Interchange: 10. Mike Cooper 15. Bronson Harrison 16. Shane Pumipi 17. Will Matthews.
Cowboys 24 (Antonio Winterstein 2, Tariq Sims, Curtis Rona, Jason Taumalolo tries; Ethan Lowe 2 goals)
St George Illawarra 27 (Jason Nightingale 3, Charly Runciman, Adam Quinlan tries; Gareth Widdop 3 goals, 1 field goal)