Crafty and tough in equal measure, newly signed NRL squad member Jake Clifford has played a leading hand in guiding the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys Under-20s to a memorable 24-18 victory over perennial competition heavyweights Penrith this afternoon.
Halfback Clifford scored a superb try, laid on two others, was on song with his general kicking and piloted over all four of his conversion attempts in a brilliant sign for the future, given his new two-year NRL deal.
The skilful No.7 was far from a lone ranger in a masterful display from Aaron Payne’s men, who rallied from 12-6 down at half-time and 18-12 behind with 25 minutes remaining, to score an important win off the back of a disappointing last-gasp loss to the Storm in Round 15.
Today's game was a high-quality, low-mistake affair between two teams playing patient footy, with a nil-all scoreline holding until the 31st minute when the Cowboys’ defence finally cracked first.
It was to be the start of a frenetic seven-minute period where three tries were scored, including Clifford’s sublime take off a towering bomb.
The try just before half time would have been a huge confidence booster for the side, trailing 12-0 prior.
The home side struck first in the second through Nathan Traill before the visitors again went ahead 18-12 and the Cowboys had plenty to do.
But an immediate reply in the form of a 90m Michael Carroll solo effort tied up the game with 20 minutes remaining, while utility Duarne Dempsey was the grateful recipient of a Carroll offload to score what would be the match-winner.
The Cowboys moved to equal fourth on the National Youth Competition ladder with their ninth win, while the Panthers stay in second place behind front-runners Cronulla.
NORTH QUEENSLAND TOYOTA COWBOYS NYC 24 (Jake Clifford, Nathan Traill, Michael Carroll, Duarne Dempsey tries; Clifford 4 goals) def PENRITH PANTHERS NYC 18 (Carl Winterstein, Dean Blore, Sam Martin Savage tries; Blore 3 goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium.