NRL Round 25, 2007
North Queensland Cowboys 38 def Canterbury Bulldogs 32

A big crowd packed into Dairy Farmers Stadium to farewell Paul Bowman tonight as the Cowboys hosted the Bulldogs. The visiting Bulldogs entering the game as hot favourites with the bookies as Willie Mason and Matt Utai returned for the Dogs just a week out from the semi’s.

Conditions were ideal in North Queensland, regardless of the fact it was a night game – the tropical climate ensured dry conditions and safer handling.

Early on however, both sides had difficulty holding the ball. Ben Roberts knocking on from the kick-off, then both teams trading errors as they struggled to settle down. The Cowboys testing the Dogs line on several occasions, with the Bulldogs shutting them out and counter attacking quickly.

After about 3 sets from the Cowboys in attack, it was obvious they were targetting Matt Utai on the edge – trying to draw him infield at every chance. It worked a treat on the second attempt, Jonathan Thurston sucking Utai in and setting up Ty Williams in the corner – the Cowboys winger touching down with virtually zero space to work in.

The Cowboys seized the momentum and were soon touching down again, another well worked play and successful kicking by Thurston allowing them to jump out to a 14 point lead. When the Dogs finally got some field position they started to threaten – however they bombed certain tries on several occasions, Ben Roberts and Brent Sherwin probably making the wrong decision on several occasions.

The Dogs did eventually get over the line, their attack trying to isolate Jonathan Thurtson – highlighting how the halfback will ‘rush’ and over commit to attackers coming on his left. The try from the Dogs was however scored through brute strength and repeat sets as opposed to the dangerous sweeping movements by the Cowboys when they were attacking.

The late first half try from the Cowboys gave them the upper-hand and the perfect finish to the first half. Buoyed by a massive and vocal home crowd it seemed the Cowboys could really skip away.

The second half initially proved just that, the Cowboys getting on a huge momentum roll and piling on the points. Similar to Melbourne against the Dogs last weekend, the Cowboys were killing the Bulldogs with quick play the balls and quick spreads to the edge – exposing the Bulldogs lack of speed in the centre of the field and even on the edges. When you consider the wingers for the Dogs – El Masri and Utai certainly aren’t the quickest men in the game and as the Cowboys got outside the likes of Tonga and Millard it was open season.

The Cowboys raced to a 20 point lead in the blink of an eye, Aaron Payne was dynamic and precise in his co-ordination from dummy half as the locals were treated to champagne entertainment in a stellar 25 minutes. With 20 minutes still remaining in the game, the Cowboys could have realistically reached 50, but within an instant it all changed.

Jonathan Thurston was benched by coach Graham Murray.

The single change saw the momentum turn in such a massive fashion, that I can’t recall a turn quite like it. As Thurston left the field, it was a signal for the Cowboys to clock off, the locals utterly falling apart and allowing the Bulldogs to run in 24 unanswered points in the space of 12 minutes.

The massive counter attack almost snaring the game for the Bulldogs in what would have been a record turnaround. However, all was not lost – with Canterbury saving what could have been a fatal points difference situation if they had of lost by 40+. The larger loss may have opened the door for another team to kick them out of the finals.

Regardless, the confidence will be leaking away from the Dogs as they lose their last two games and limp into the NRL finals. The Cowboys too will be disappointed with their closure of the game, proving they are simply a different team without Thurston.

By ricky

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