North Queensland coach Todd Payten insisted Scott Drinkwater and Valentine Holmes remained locked in the battle for the No.1 jersey despite a tale-of-two-halves trial win over Brisbane that put this new Cowboys outfit on the path to a much-improved 2021 season.
The Cowboys produced a stunning come-from-behind 34-18 win over Brisbane at Redcliffe’s Dolphin Stadium on Saturday night, as Holmes scored in the five-try second-half demolition when shifted to fullback.
The Cowboys trailed 18-6 after a sluggish first half but piled on three tries in just nine minutes early in the second stanza to take control of the match as Kevin Walters’ new regime at the Broncos produced the same lapses of concentration that plagued their 2020 wooden spoon campaign.
While both clubs are fighting their way from the bottom four in 2020, it was the Cowboys who walked away from the trial with more reason to smile after their dominant second-half performance in the six-tries-to-three victory.
Prop forward Francis Molo looked a constant danger with his late offloads, halfback Jake Clifford controlled the game with his kicking and big names like Jason Taumalolo, Michael Morgan, Valentine Holmes, fullback Josh Drinkwater and Coen Hess also showed glimpses of their best.
“It was encouraging signs in that second half. A bit of belief, a bit of resilience and I felt we stuck at it which is positive,” Payten said.
“We kept putting pressure through the middle.
“I think we can still play the game the right way better.
“We still have a little bit of that big-plays mentality, the tougher teams played finals last year and were grinding them out.”
The second-half rout was ignited by a play we’ve seen many times before. Winger Kyle Feldt faced with three defenders, no room to move, and he pushes one Bronco aside to then launch his acrobatic dive for a one-handed put down just inside the chalk.
What followed next was like a 2020 Broncos lowlights film as the Cowboys scored two quick tries to Holmes and Mitch Dunn with cheeky grubber kicks behind the line to take a 22-18 lead just before the hour.
Centres Esarn Masters and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow completed the five-try second-half onslaught to give the Cowboys an enormous shot of confidence ahead of their NRL season opener against grand finalists Penrith on March 13.
Payten said he was still no closer to deciding whether Drinkwater or Holmes would wear the No.1 jersey, even though Holmes was at the back during the rout, while spots in the centres and the bench are still up in the air.
“They both know the selection criteria and that’s to run our defensive organisation,” Payten said of the fullback battle.
“I’ll have to watch the video again. We had four centres there with some good moments so that’s a little bit of a headache.”
For Brisbane it’s back to the drawing board after the disappointing second half followed what was a promising opening 40 minutes.
Fullback Jamayne Isaako looked like a superstar, throwing sublime passes and cutting through the defensive line as the Broncos moved like a team that’d been singing from the same song sheet for the first time in a long time.
Halfback Tom Dearden was in complete control of the attack, hooker Jake Turpin had the pack rolling forward and defensively the Broncos had a starch that lacked last year.
Isaako had a hand in both of the Broncos opening tries putting Tesi Nui over after just four minutes before his line break and offload to Dearden set up David Mead for the corner in the 14th minute.
The Broncos ended the half on a high with Turpin bursting over after some smart play by five-eighth Brodie Croft.
Broncos recruit John Asiata and Thomas Flegler face an anxious wait after they were both placed on report for a lifting tackle on Cowboys lock Reuben Cotter in the 26th minute.
Walters will face his first real test of his coaching career now to get the Broncos up and running for their NRL round one clash with Parramatta on March 12.