An injury-battered Bulldogs outfit overwhelmed the Cowboys with a controlled second-half performance in Townsville that kept them in the hunt for the minor premiership while consigning the home side to some anxiety surrounding their top-eight hopes.
Missing Ben Hannant and Luke Patten and losing Jarrad Hickey (head clash) and Michael Hodgson (hamstring) early, the Bulldogs looked off the pace at the halfway break when they trailed 12-6. But an explosive opening to the second half saw them assume control and their opponents wither under pressure.
The game was up-tempo from the outset, the Cowboys taking an early lead when they scored after some unlikely lead-up play. Pinned in their quarter, fullback Matt Bowen hoicked a clearing kick on tackle four. The ball was more bomb than clearing kick, with winger Michael Bani knocking it back and the Cowboys regathering near halfway. Two tackles later Johnathan Thurston passed left to a rampaging Carl Webb who offloaded back to Thurston, the skipper stepping inside to score adjacent to the posts for a 6-0 lead after 11 minutes.
The Dogs went close to bridging the gap in the 15th minute when Brett Kimmorley hit centre Jamal Idris running an inside angle 10 metres out before the dreadlocked monster popped a short ball to Jarrad Hickey who was adjudged to have been held up over the line.
Minutes later Bryson Goodwin made a break following a ’Dogs 20-metre restart, Cowboys’ prop Shane Tronc penalised for slowing down the movement. From there the blue-and-whites pressed their territorial advantage, Goodwin getting a long ball on the left edge before turning it inside to centre Josh Morris who wrestled three defenders to belatedly plant it on the try line.
The Cowboys then built pressure with three successive sets on the Bulldogs’ line and looked to have scored when Willie Tonga speared over on the left edge after quick offloads from Thurston to Matt Bowen. But close to the ruck Carl Webb, running a decoy, flattened Kimmorley; video referee Bill Harrigan ruled ‘No Try’ and the local crowd howled.
The game was delayed for eight minutes when Webb and Hickey came together with a sickening clash of heads, with the Bulldog prop medi-cabbed off the ground.
The Cowboys then made up for their earlier disallowed points, Tonga crossing in the left corner when stand-in Bulldogs fullback Hazem El Masri rushed off his line to try to slap the ball from spreading wide. Thurston’s conversion sent the home side to the sheds with a 12-6 lead.
The Game Swung When… Cowboys hooker Anthony Watts kicked out on the full when attempting to clear the ball on the fourth tackle after the resumption. It sent the Bulldogs on the attack 40 metres out and they earned further possession from a penalty. They struck immediately, with a wonderful, late underarm offload from Chris Armit seeing El Masri bounce like a pinball off defenders to score under the posts. That locked the game up at 12-all and the momentum shifted to the visitors.
In the 57th minute the crucial play: the home side put up a sixth-tackle bomb, which the Cowboys regathered before they hoisted the ball again. But the Bulldogs cleaned it up on their 20-metre line and turned defence into attack when Ben Roberts broke away, brushing aside a feeble Thurston attempted tackle which will haunt the Aussie no.7 for a long time. Roberts offloaded to prop Greg Eastwood in support who passed to Goodwin who scored to send the ’Dogs to an 18-12 lead.
When El Masri booted a penalty in the 60th minute it was game-over at 20-12, a further penalty goal in the 71st minute only compounding the home side’s frustrations at blowing a solid chance at a top-four spot.
Who Was Hot… ’Dogs’ lock David Stagg made a game-high 44 tackles and four tackle breaks and carted the ball up with authority, while five-eighth Ben Roberts was a threat running the ball (164 metres gained) with five tackle breaks, two offloads and a try assist. And Josh Morris was elusive, making five tackle busts.
The Cowboys were best served by prop Shane Tronc, who tried hard for 105 metres with 38 tackles, and second-rower Scott Bolton who made 136 metres.
Who Was Not… With so much at stake Thurston (three errors, just one offload) did not impose himself on the game as expected. His missed tackle on Roberts (he made four in all) was a shocker.
Matt Bowen, one of the game’s most explosive fullbacks, made just 25 metres.
Cowboys five-eighth Grant Rovelli threw a bunch of forward passes that cost his side momentum. Thurston did too.
And Anthony Watts made four glaring errors that proved costly.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… El Masri was officially credited with 59 metres for the game. But he made 30 more than that, having been picked up and carried backwards by defenders each time he attempted a kick-return. A forceful returner of the ball he isn’t.
Willie Tonga joined Jarrad Hickey as a head-clash casualty after a sickening coming together with the noggin of Jamal Idris shortly after half-time.
Bad Boys… Cowboy Steve Rapira was charged with dangerous contact (feet of kicker) after a 63rd-minute incident. He’ll escape suspension with an early guilty plea.
Refs Watch… The decision to deny the Cowboys a try following the Webb-Kimmorley collision looked correct. While Kimmorley was 10 metres from the try-scorer Webb’s run denied the halfback a chance of contesting the play.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – David Stagg (Bulldogs): Tackled like a demon and made good ground (19 hit-ups, 106 metres) to keep the visitors on the front foot; 2 points – Ben Roberts (Bulldogs): Crafty and creative – Roberts broke the game open with a devastating run to set up Goodwin’s try; 1 point – Shane Tronc (Cowboys): A surging game from the big front-rower.
Bulldogs 22 (H El Masri, J Morris, B Goodwin tries; El Masri 5 goals) def Cowboys 12 (W Tonga, J Thurston tries; Thurston 2 goals) at Dairy Farmers Stadium. Crowd: 18,199.