The Cowboys didn't play poorly but were simply outmuscled by a desperate Bunnies side looking to lock in a top-four finish and double chance come September.
Reigning premiers South Sydney outdid their Round 1 annihilation of Brisbane to put in their best performance of the season, but are not getting carried away with just the one game.
Souths play the kind of style that wins finals games
South Sydney's patented 'bully ball' was a sight to behold on Thursday night as they bounced back from a weak showing at Brookvale Oval to physically dominate the more fancied Cowboys on their home patch. With the Cowboys pack primed for a big game – looking to respond from a pounding at the hands of Cronulla with the aid of a rested Matt Scott – it was Souths who motored through the middle with more ease on Thursday.
In the age of running around teams to score, Souths are proving there is more than one way to skin a cat as they rank fifth in points per game despite being ranked 14th and 16th in terms of left (8 per game) and right (7 per game) shifts respectively. They are more likely to use their forwards to make metres rather than move the ball around and that can still produce points – they average 20.7 per game and actually lead the league in line breaks with 4.48 per game.
While that style of play has proven to be a winner come finals time, coach Michael Maguire shrugged off the topic, not wanting to look too far ahead. "You're trying to take us into something that is a long way down the track; it's three or four weeks away," Maguire said.
"Really, we've got this next week to grow on what we did out there tonight. We didn't perform the way we'd like last week and we've got to make sure we back up what tonight's performance was about and that is the boys doing a job for each other."
Cowboys must improve their middle defensively
They are still top two on the ladder but the Cowboys have shown some distinct signs of frailty over the past couple of weeks and it should have North Queenslanders worried. As much as their right-edge defence has been talked about throughout the year, it is the middle of the field which should have their coach's box working overtime to remedy before finals arrives.
Too many tries have been conceded straight up the guts recently, with simple one-out charges off a dummy-half's short ball proving the Cowboys' kryptonite. Cronulla No.9 Michael Ennis exposed the Cowboys' problem back in the Sharks' streak-busting win in Round 16, and again on Thursday Issac Luke saw a weakness in the home side's line and went to work, feeding a hungry Jason Clark to go through John Asiata and Matt Scott to the left of the sticks. Jason Taumalolo and Jake Granville also let Tom Burgess through for an easy four-pointer in the first half with a defensive showing that encapsulated the night in one play.
Taumalolo (nine hit-ups and 11 tackles in the first 20 minutes) came out swinging, looking to atone for his poor performances ever since taking the strapping off his knee. But for all his good work up the middle to arrest Souths' momentum, 'JT3' gave it right back when the older Burgess twin fended off his weak attempt at tackle and let the job fall into the hands of diminutive hooker Jake Granville to single-handedly stop the 196-centimetre, 120 kilogram giant at the line. Along with poor discipline on the goal line, Dylan Walker's 73rd minute try came courtesy of some patented Issac Luke dummy-half craft and a lazy James Tamou tackling attempt. Despite a couple of soft displays up the middle, coach Paul Green noted an improved energy overall.
"I thought our energy and urgency and enthusiasm was a step in the right direction," he said.
"I thought it'd been better [tonight than usual]. The last eight games have been a bit tricky for us but tonight I thought we took some steps in the right direction, particularly defensively. I thought we were able to put them under some pressure, but we weren't able to sustain it."
Cowboys need a lot more 'steps in the right direction'
It is halfway through August and the Cowboys are still showing signs of mental fragility. Credit to them, they responded quicker than usual to an early-game onslaught and turned it on inside the first 10 minutes, but there is no glossing over the missed tackles by some of their main men in the middle.
While coach Green acknowledged the improved level of hustle in his side on Thursday, he a couple of defensive mistakes from Taumalolo who, despite running for 158 metres – his highest output since Round 17 v the Dragons – missed a couple of crucial tackles including letting through a momentum-shifting try to Tom Burgess. On paper Taumalolo (14 runs for 158 metres, 32 tackles and two misses) had a good game, but Green was critical of a sub-par effort from his young enforcer.
"That's why stats can sometimes paint a different picture to what might actually have gone on out there," Green said.
"I'm not picking on Jase there either but I think we got beaten through the middle there today."
Veteran Ben Hannant had almost as many missed tackles (five) as he had hit-ups (seven) and hooker Jake Granville was picked on through the middle, missing four of his own.
Although Green described Thursday as a step in the right direction, there is still a lot to be desired for a team that look home and hosed for a top-two finish two weeks ago, but could now find themselves sitting third by the end of the round.
Damage was done early in the game for Cowboys
After the game Cowboys prop Matt Scott noted that a concerted effort to muscle up on defence early in the game did very little for his side apart from sap their energy stocks which showed late in the game. While the home side put forward an aggressive defensive showing at times in the first half, they got a little overzealous putting big hits on along with trying to slow down play-the-balls. The resulting penalties to Souths gave them a free ride out of their danger zone, where they could subsequently apply pressure to the Cowboys down the other end of the field.
The Bunnies were the more composed unit throughout and it showed. A fatigued Cowboys coughed it up multiple times coming out of their own end in the second half, while Souths (completing at 87 per cent) played a much safer game that offered the hosts no such handouts.
"We lost the middle third towards the back end of the (second) half, but the damage was done early in the game," Scott said after the game.
"We are probably on the right track. If we fix up a few little areas then I think we'll have more energy in our defence in the middle third of the field."
Cowboys' right edge on the improve
While the middle of the field copped some flak on Thursday night, North Queensland's much-maligned right side is making strides of their own.
Antonio Winterstein recently said coach Green was getting more talk and involvement from the likes of Matthew Wright and Justin O'Neill at training, and it is showing in recent games.
The edge that has previously leaked like a sieve has conceded just eight tries (1.6 per game) since the full squad returned after Origin in Round 19 against Manly.
"Our whole right edge I thought were strong in the contest, Justin O'Neill in particular," Green said after the game.
"I thought he played really strong and aggressive. It was good to see him get a try; he's been so close in just about every one of our games recently so it was a bit of a monkey off the back. He was really good, along with Ethan Lowe (111 metres, 35 tackles), I thought he was strong on both sides of the ball."