North Queensland Toyota Cowboys colours flew proudly in two states tonight as club teams posted victories in trial matches in Sydney and Townsville.
A full-strength NRL-quality Cowboys team edged Wests Tigers 18-16 at Campbelltown stadium – thanks to a 76th-minute match-winning try to Kane Linnett – while in Townsville, a combined NRL/NYC team were too strong for Queensland Cup team the Townsville Blackhawks in posting a 44-8 victory.
With Paul Green and his entire 31-man squad leaving for a pre-season camp in New Zealand tomorrow, tonight’s trial was the final chance for the coach to assess on-field form before the club’s 2017 NRL season-opener against the Raiders on March 4.
And while the match contained a litany of penalties and handling errors, there were plenty of promising signs for the season ahead given the match was the one and only chance for the full-strength team to play together in the pre-season.
Led by co-captain and playmaker Johnathan Thurston in his first 13-a-side hitout this year, the Cowboys started strongly; with the maestro sneaking in a grubber kick for halves partner Michael Morgan to latch onto in the opening quarter of an hour.
But haunted by the concession of a slew of penalties, the Cowboys let the hosts quickly back into the contest as powerful Tiger David Nofoaluma scored off a kick after 23 minutes. It was 6-all and the hot conditions seemed to be taking its toll on ball security as more Cowboys errors led to Jason Taylor’s men shooting out to a 12-6 lead as Josh Aloiai beat three would-be defenders to crash over five minutes from the break.
North Queensland, though, were proving dogged competitors, and when livewire utility and new recruit Ben Hampton took advantage of tiring defenders right on halftime to scythe over the line, a 12-all scoreline hinted at another tight trial match six days after the Cowboys snuck home by a point against the Roosters in Mackay.
But if the Townsville-based team was to win this one, they’d have to run down a lead as Nofoaluma saluted for his second try with just 10 minutes remaining following a dour, mistaken-ridden half-hour. The try wasn’t converted as the Tigers held a 16-12 lead with just minutes on the clock.
Enter excitable young Tiger Watson Heleta, who calmly fielded a kick in-goal and raced to the 20m line for the tap restart with less than three minutes on the clock. The initial part of the run was impressive but the youngster threw an errant pass under no pressure, and gifted the Cowboys possession in prime field position. The visitors only needed two plays to make the Tigers pay for the error, with slick hands to the left ending with Linnett sliding over out wide. Thurston calmly potted the extras and the Cowboys came away from the trial with bragging rights and a clearer idea of how the Round 1 team may look.
Winger Antonio Winterstein came off the field in the first half with what looked like an ankle injury, the veteran outside back taking no further part in the game.