Sidelined with COVID, interim coach Brett Kimmorley was intended to step aside for Tim Sheens to take the helm, who was coincidentally the coach of the 2005 Grand Final win over the Cowboys.
However, Sheens also fell ill with the virus, leaving assistant Ben Gardiner to take the reigns.
Enduring one of their worst years on record and with a plague of damaging headlines overshadowing their performances, it was always going to be a tough battle for the last-placed team to overcome the high-flying, second-placed Cowboys.
However, the script had been flipped, and despite Tom Dearden getting North Queensland off to a brilliant start in only the third minute, it would be the Tigers taking a 16-6 lead into half-time off the back of tries to Brent Naden, Fa’amanu Brown and Asu Kepaoa.
While the Tigers will be commended on a far more concerted effort, notably with improved player combinations between Luke Brooks, Daine Laurie, Adam Doueihi and Jackson Hastings, it was the Cowboys who were hindering themselves with a sub-par 50% completion rate at the end of the first half.
A spray from coach Todd Payton reinvigorated the Northerners, and a dominant display from Queensland State of Origin representatives Jeremiah Nanai and Valentine Holmes would realign the sides at 18-18. The Cowboys would re-assume the lead by a converted try in the 69th minute.
Nearly 15,000 fans would breathe a sigh of relief in the 74th minute as Holmes slotted a long-range field goal, ice-cold under pressure, taking the lead out to a seemingly unassailable 25-18 lead with only five minutes remaining in the game.
But a fairy-tale finish for the cellar-dwelling Tigers appeared on the cards for the NRL’s 45th 300-gamer James Tamou, with an incredible set of last-gasp tries to Naden and Starford Toa bringing the joint-venture club into the lead 26-25 with only a single second left on the clock.
What happened next will unfortunately dominate the headlines and force the NRL into damage control over its standard of refereeing, again.
An attempted short restart lacked execution, and the ball was secured by Daine Laurie.
Referee Chris Butler blew his whistle, in what most would agree was to signify the ending of the game, despite pockets of protestations from Cowboys players that winger Kyle Feldt had been ‘escorted’ off the ball by Kepaoa.
A captain’s challenge was submitted, and the Bunker ruled that a penalty was to be awarded to the Cowboys.
Remaining a point of contention, Valentine Holmes lined the kick up regardless, and kicked his team to an incredibly victory.
Chad Townsend: I immediately saw the escort and ran over and challenged. The ref asked what I was challenging and I said the escort.
— Jazz (@LambyTopWok) July 24, 2022
However, the fallout from this match will be ongoing, and according to the NRL Laws & Interpretations 2022:
- “The challenging captain must inform the referee of which element of the decision they are challenging”;
Yet, there had been no decision made by referee Butler, other than a signalling of the end of the game.
- “The captain can only challenge decisions by the referee which cause play to stop”;
It can be argued that the referee had not stopped the game, rather, the game had stopped by virtue of it ending at the end of the 80th minute.
- “…a challenge cannot be requested during general play if a whistle has not already been blown to indicate a stoppage…”
Chris Butler had indeed blown his whistle, but not to rule on a point scoring situation, change in possession or penalty – which are the only instances whereby a challenge can be made.
Butler’s whistle had been blown to signify the end of the game.
The NRL has been criticised in the past for disallowing dissent regarding referee performances.
The idea that referees ‘rig’ games or cheat intentionally is ludicrous, however the ending of this high quality match has left a sour taste in the mouths of many.
The dream is well and truly alive for North Queensland in 2022.
For the Tigers, this may have been the straw that breaks the camel’s back.