A record-breaking effort from Cowboys star Jason Taumalolo lit up an eerily empty ANZ Stadium on Thursday night as the Cowboys chalked up a 24-16 win over the Bulldogs.
The handful of reporters present were able to hear individual calls from the players and benches echo through the empty stadium, with an official attendance of 241 including the players, the club, NRL and stadium staff and media due to the coronavirus-influenced ban on outdoor gatherings over 500 people.
The lack of atmosphere made no difference to Taumalolo, who finished with 345 metres, breaking Steve Price's all-time record for a forward of 323, including a powerful try and a second-half line break.
Despite starting each half strongly the Dogs struggled badly for coherency in attack and were caught flat-footed in defence too many times. Joe Stimson was hooked after two poor reads in the first half while Lachlan Lewis paid the price in the second half for the clunky attack.
Match: Bulldogs v Cowboys
Round 2 -
Venue: ANZ Stadium, Sydney
The Cowboys looked far sharper than in last week's home loss to Brisbane with the developing spine gelling better as the likes of Val Holmes, Scott Drinkwater and Reece Robson all produced some nice moments.
The Bulldogs started in near-perfect fashion when quick hands from Stimson helped Nick Meaney make a break down the left with Lewis supporting for an early 6-0 lead.
But an eighth-minute error from Reimis Smith, losing it in a tackle on the first play, was the beginning of half an hour of one-way traffic.
Taumalolo and Molo combine
After some sustained pressure Coen Hess crashed over from a nice Michael Morgan short ball then in the 18th minute Drinkwater sliced over, using his pace and a nice show-and-go to get around Stimson untouched.
Seven minutes later it was a slick Holmes cut-out on the left to send Ben Hampton past some flat-footed defence and a 16-6 lead.
When Dallin Watene-Zelezniak made an unforced error attempting to field a kick in the 28th, he was sin-binned for a second effort on Kyle Feldt and with his team so close to lasting the 10 minutes unscathed, Taumalolo crashed over next to the posts to make it 22-6 at the break.
Renouf To'omaga crossed for his first NRL try early in the second half off a nice Adam Elliott pass but that was about as good as it got for Dean Pay's men.
Frustrated with a lack of cohesion, he substituted halfback Lewis for debutant utility back Jake Averillo, who slotted into the halves after a strong game at five-eighth a week earlier in Canterbury Cup.
Holmes stretched the lead to 12 with a penalty goal while the Dogs squandered a rare repeat set with a first-tackle error. That came off an unsuccessful challenge from Morgan, who unsuccessfully contested a knock-on ruling against Holmes fielding a bomb.
Holmes sets up Hampton
Josh Jackson returned fire with a successful challenge, arguing Robson had stripped a ball that had originally been ruled a Dogs knock on – though again they immediately squandered the attacking chance with an error.
They did look more coherent with the ball with Wakeham – who had a poor first half – assuming chief ball-playing duties and Averillo adding some spark, including a wonderful try-saver on Hess.
Averillo set up a consolation try to Christian Crichton in the final 10 seconds to close the gap to 24-16 to ensure his NRL debut was memorable for plenty of reasons.