The Cowboys overcame the loss of boom second-rower Heilum Luki with a knee injury to outclass the Dragons 31-12 at QCB Stadium on Friday night and continue their finals march.
Already without Maroons Origin forwards Jeremiah Nanai and Reuben Cotter, North Queensland lost Luki in the first half and early fears were that he had suffered a season ending ACL injury.
However, Todd Payten's men barely missed a beat, with superstar lock Jason Taumalolo and hooker Reece Robson leading the way against a St George Illawarra team that struggled for answers in attack.
Taumalolo in open space
Seven errors, three penalties and three six-again offences hurt the Dragons badly in the first half, with the Cowboys completing nine sets of possession before their opponents got to the last tackle for the first time in the match.
St George Illawarra never recovered and completed just 27 of 40 sets of possession, with Zac Lomax responsible for five errors in a frustrating night for the star centre.
Taumolo ran 206 metres in possession while another 11 Cowboys players carried the ball for more than 100 metres, including Robson who ran 110 metres from dummy half against his former club.
In comparison, no Dragons forward ran more 100 metres with the ball.
Queensland coach Billy Slater said Cowboys wingers Murray Taulagi and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow were locked in a battle to replace Xavier Coates in Origin II and the former probably shaded his team-mate.
Match: Cowboys v Dragons
Round 14 -
Venue: Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
- Cowboys fullback Scott Drinkwater made up for a knock on in his team's opening set when he scored their first try in the eighth minute and laid on another four minutes later.
- Five-eighth Tom Dearden put prop Coen Hess through a gap and Drinkwater backed up to score off an offload from the former Queensland Origin star.
- Drinkwater then put a perfectly placed grubber kick behind Dragons centre Moses Suli for Kiwis international Peta Hiku to race through and score.
Hiku sneaks through
- Valentine Holmes, who was fittingly wearing the No.23 jersey in his 150th NRL appearance, put the Cowboys ahead 14-0 with a 23rd minute penalty goal after Blake Lawrie was placed on report for a tackle on Dearden.
- The home team were threatening to score again when Dragons winger Jonathon Reuben - the NRL's oldest rookie at 29 years-of-age - intercepted a Hiku pass and raced 50 metres.
- Reuben had scored 107 tries in 106 Queensland Cup appearances but desperate Cowboys defence stopped him scoring his first NRL try.
Reuben on the run
- Dragons fullback Cody Ramsey was disallowed a try in the 29th minute due to an obstruction by Suli and Reece Robson scored at the opposite end of the field on the following set after Jason Taumalolo put Griffin Neame into space.
- Suli redeemed himself soon after when Ben Hunt put him in between two defenders near the line and regained the ball after Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow tried to strip it to score four minutes before halftime.
Suli gets one back for the Dragons
- Thoughts of a second half Dragons comeback against the NRL's best defensive team were extinguished early in the 45th minute after Murray Taulagi picked up a loose Zac Lomax pass and strolled over to score.
Taulagi finds the target
- North Queensland halfback Chad Townsend kicked a field goal with six minutes remaining but the Dragons didn't give up hope and appeared set to at least be able to claim they had won the second half.
- After being a late call up for the match, former Maroons Origin second-rower Jaydn Su’A scored a late consolation try when he ran onto a flat pass from five-eighth Talatau Amone in the 75th minute.
- However, Dolphins-bound backrower Connelly Lemuelu scored with just 15 seconds remaining to complete a 31-12 triumph.
Lemuelu with the finishing touch
Play of the game
After breaking into the clear earlier in the match, Jason Taumalolo turned ball player to put Griffin Neame through a hole and the interchange forward sent hooker Reece Robson racing 40 metres to score in the 30th minute.
The Dragons had appeared set to score at the opposite end just a minute earlier but had the try disallowed for an obstruction and were suddenly trailing 20-0.
The points keep coming for the Cowboys
What they said
"I just loved the way we competed because there a couple of line breaks against the run of play but when we made the tackle there was four or five or six players in the picture and by the next play we had everyone behind the ball. For me that was probably the difference tonight. I thought we outcompeted them. I thought for the most part we looked pretty comfortable, I thought we knew what was coming and everyone just did their job. We held another team to 12 points or less is not a bad stat to have and it just shows again how hard we are working for each other,": Cowboys coach Todd Payten.
Cowboys: Round 14
"It was messy. We never, ever settled into the game. I thought it was temperament. We never really worked hard enough or direct enough to get a reward. We just never settled into the game. We did a good job on ourselves without them helping. It is short turn around and we have just got to be better than that. We came off a bye and just weren't prepared to play long minutes against a good team to gain an advantage. We were just too impatient": Dragons coach Anthony Griffin.
Dragons: Round 14
The Dragons host the Rabbitohs at WIN Stadium on Thursday night, while the Cowboys travel to Sydney to take on the Sea Eagles on Friday night at 4 Pines Park.
St George Illawarra coach Anthony Griffin is expected to welcome back NSW Origin forward Tariq Sims after he sat out the Cowboys match, while winger Mathew Feagai will also be available if he has recovered from the 'flu.
Jack Bird was placed on report for a crusher tackle on Jordan McLean, while Blake Lawrie was also reported for a high tackle on Tom Dearden after the Cowboys five-eighth had kicked the ball.
North Queensland coach Todd Payten will be awaiting the results of scans to confirm the full extent of the knee injury sustained by Heilum Luki in the first half but he is hopeful that Jeremiah Nanai will be available after suffering an ankle injury in Origin I.
Maroons team-mates Reuben Cotter was rested from the clash with the Dragons and should also be fit for the trip to Manly.