The Cowboys gave themselves hope of avoiding the wooden spoon after emerging triumphant from the battle of the NRL’s bottom clubs, with the loss adding further to the Dogs’ embarrassing run of results since Sonny Bill Williams fled their Belmore kennel two weeks ago to play rugby union in France.
The Cowboys led 14-0 at halftime with their only moment of concern throughout the match coming when exciting Dogs fullback Ben Barba scored his maiden NRL try early in the second half.
It was an absolute beauty – teammate Lee Te Maari serving up a lovely short ball for Barba, who showed wonderful footwork and balance to bamboozle Cowboys fullback Ashley Graham with his swerve and pace.
Barba had scored 27 tries in 17 under-20 games before being handed his NRL starting debut for injured custodian Luke Patten.
At 14-6 the Bulldogs threatened one of their old-fashioned comebacks, but it was buried under an avalanche of tries as the Cowboys savoured the win in front of small crowd of 8,549 fans to win the Reconciliation Cup for the second successive year.
It was the Cowboys first win since they beat the New Zealand Warriors 48-20 in round six of the competition on April 19.
For the Bulldogs, it was their fourth straight loss and eighth defeat in nine games.
Since Williams’ shock departure, they have conceded a total of 122 points in three games while scoring just 16 themselves.
They now sit just two points above the cellar dwelling Cowboys on the ladder, and with a far inferior points-for-and-against than North Queensland are in serious danger of collecting the wooden spoon.
Makeshift five-eighth Sione Faumuina was a standout for the Cowboys, scoring a try and laying on three others, while halfback Travis Burns played his best game for the club after a troubled debut season.
Former Test and Origin prop Carl Webb set the standard for North Queensland with a barnstorming try in the fourth minute.
Webb carried three Bulldog players over the tryline after bursting onto a pass from makeshift five-eighth Sione Faumuina that looked marginally forward.
It was Faumuina’s perfectly weighted chip kick which led to winger Ty Williams extending the Cowboys lead to 8-0 in the 14th minute.
The Bulldogs finished the game with a spectacular 90 metre try which again showcased the talent at Barba.
Barba field a kick near his own line in the dying minute, chipped ahead and managed to regain the ball and avoid going into touch.
He flung the ball in-field and eventually centre Andrew Emelio to dive over.
Cowboys coach Ian Millward said his first win in 10 games since replacing Graham Murray was not so much a relief but a reward for the hard work his players had been putting in during their losing trot.
“We’ve been working really hard and our biggest loss in recent weeks has been 12 points and they’ve been getting toweled up,” said Millward who could have star halfback Johnathan Thurston back on deck next week against the Gold Coast.
“In the end the score probably flattered them.
“It’s probably the strongest team we’ve had on the park for the last 13 weeks and last week we led 20-10 against a team (the Sydney Roosters) that’s going to finish top four.”
Millward said he’d been pre-warned by the club’s former fitness trainer Billy Johnstone that Scott Prince would return from a broken arm for the Titans next week when Thurston could also be back.
“That would be a mouth-watering clash,” he said.
Bulldogs coach Steve Folkes, who didn’t want to discuss the Sonny Bill Williams saga, said a lack of possession in the first half had taken its toll.
“I think it was 65-35 (tackle count) and that takes a toll,” said Folkes, who was happy with the attitude of his players.
“They scored their first try off a blatant forward pass, I don’t know what the touchy was looking at.
“When we got back to 14-6 after halftime we were still pretty enthusiastic, but we’d done too much defence early.”
Folkes said Barba had shown with a few touches he was a “player of the future”.
NORTH QUEENSLAND 36 (T Williams 2 T Burns R Cashmere S Faumuina A Graham C Webb tries J Williams 4 goals)
BULLDOGS 12 (B Barba A Emelio tries H El Masri 2 goals)