The Cowboys still struggle in the first 20, errors are haunting Warriors, Jake Granville is a big game player, and other lessons from the Cowboys' 28-24 victory over the Warriors in Johnathan Thurston's 250th NRL game.
Jake Granville is a big-time player
The modest country boy from central Queensland stole the show on Saturday, stealing the limelight away from Johnathan Thurston's 250-game milestone to register a hat-trick, including the game-winning try just two minutes from full-time.
Last year the hooker was seen by Broncos coach Anthony Griffin as too small to contribute, riding the pine for Brisbane behind Andrew McCullough. This year he has the keys to arguably the league's best pack as the No.9 at North Queensland. Granville is not shying away from the workload either, making 34 tackles on Saturday night and running the ball every chance he gets.
"I'm really happy for him," said coach Paul Green after the game. "Obviously I've got a long association with him. I've seen him do that for years so I'm just happy that he's doing it at this level because I knew he would."
Shaun Johnson is slowly finding form
After earning Golden Boot honours in 2014, expectation was naturally elevated for Warriors playmaker Shaun Johnson this season. After copping criticism for a slow start to the year, all facets of the star halfback's game are improving.
Coach Andrew McFadden has tinkered with the dynamic between Johnson and halves partner Chad Townsend, with Townsend dominating the team's kicking game of late. But Johnson took it upon himself on Saturday night, doubling Townsend's kick count, including bomb kicks that had multiple Cowboys under the pump. He made use of the strong breeze in the first half to put Thurston under pressure with a midfield bomb which resulted in the game's first try, while more high swirling kicks had Lachlan Coote at sixes and sevens.
McFadden was pleased with the way his half has been progressing over the past few weeks. "(Johnson) has been building for the last month, he's been playing pretty good footy. He's going all right," he said.
Talent and hard work is getting the Cowboys through
Individual brilliance has pulled the Cowboys out of the fire on more than one occasion this season, and that is what separates North Queensland from a lot of others. With the likes of Thurston, Matt Scott, Jason Taumalolo, James Tamou, Michael Morgan and Jake Granville, they have multiple players who can be counted on to deliver when push comes to shove. The Cowboys are still a little disjointed in their approach and execution at times but are showing why they were rated among the league's elite before the season commenced.
"We were behind by a try and we were playing as if we were behind by a few tries – we were a bit frantic in how we were. Once we calmed down we got back into our groove and finished off well," Paul Green said post-game.
The Cowboys mentor also noted how his side is working harder to claw back deficits; a trait that was absent earlier in the year.
"I think we showed we've grown a bit as a team, especially compared to earlier in the year. We hung in there and stuck to our guns and got it done in the end. And showing a bit of toughness to back up off a short turnaround," he said.
Errors still plaguing Warriors
Before Saturday night the Warriors were the NRL's second-worst team at completing sets (67 per cent), and things did not improve against the Cowboys. Mistakes proved the difference as the New Zealanders committed 15 errors compared with the Cowboys' eight. The Kiwis have registered fewer than 12 errors just once this season – in their win against Parramatta in Round 3 – and average 13.7 per game.
"I think we've got the same [issue] for a number of weeks whether we're winning or losing is the effort. It's always there; it's just a little bit of detail," captain Simon Mannering said after the game.
"Pretty much the basics and sometimes there's not enough [execution and ball security]."
Added McFadden: "We had the lead at half-time and it was their home ground... they were always going to push again and it was just up to us to hold onto the ball and withstand that, but they just got one too many opportunities."
Slow starts still a problem for Cowboys
North Queensland have conceded the first try in six of their seven games this season, and while they appear have the final 60 minutes of games down pat, the first 20 minutes still alludes them. They are conceding an average of 1.5 tries in the first quarter of games this season, having only once kept their opposition scoreless in that period. Both captain and coach deflected attention away from questions of the worrisome theme, saying they were unlucky with the Warriors' early tries on Saturday.
"I don't know [the reason for slow starts]. I think we were a little bit unlucky [on Saturday],"Thurston said.
Added Green: "We actually started well. Both of those tries we had them under the pump so it sort of went against the run of play. We were under a bit of scoreboard pressure as opposed to how it actually started."