North Queensland’s 24-16 win over Canterbury on Thursday confirmed two NRL theories that have been bubbling under the surface these last few weeks.
First and foremost, this Jonathan Thurston-led Cowboys side is over its mini form slump and very much capable of defending its NRL premiership from the top four.
Secondly, it proved that the 2016 version of Des Hasler’s Bulldogs is a good team … but not a great one. The defeat sees them drop back to fifth spot on the ladder, and they will most likely finish the home-and-away season in the bottom half of the top eight.
Winning the competition from outside the top four hasn’t been achieved since the 1995 Bulldogs did it, 21 years ago.
Thurston was a masterful maestro on Thursday night, conducting proceedings from start to finish with his deft passing game, fast footwork and precision kicking.
Closer in to the coal face, Jason Taumalolo had another huge game in attack and defence, while Ethan Lowe in the back row was also superb, scoring two tries.
To Canterbury’s credit, they showed plenty of backbone in defence. At one stage late in the first half the Bulldogs repelled half a dozen straight sets of six on their own goal line.
Spurred on by the urgings of the 10,144 passionate fans at their spiritual home of Belmore, Canterbury stood tough under endless pressure.
It could so easily have been the spark they needed in this game, in this season in fact, but they continually let themselves down with ball in hand. Too often the ball ended up out of hand before Canterbury had completed the set.
The Cowboys expected to encounter a strong defensive effort, and opted for an early penalty goal to open the scoring – an early indication of respect for the same defensive line Thurston tore to shreds just five weeks ago when North Queensland beat Canterbury 36-0.
Then, after 10 minutes, Greg Eastwood had the Belmore crowd on their feet and urging him to the line after taking an intercept 60m from home.
The hulking New Zealander charged into opposition territory with Lachlan Coote in hot pursuit, and Josh Reynolds tearing down the field to offer a support option.
Eastwood ignored Reynolds, and stepped inside Coote 10m out just as his legs were failing, falling over to score his first try in more than a year as the crowd erupted.
It was the bit of luck the Bulldogs needed to spark them into action, but then not even 10 minutes later they gave back what Eastwood had earned when Lowe crashed through some flimsy goal line defence after an inside ball from Rory Kostjasyn.
There was no change in the score until halftime thanks to that Herculean defensive effort by the Bulldogs, and Hasler’s message at the break was simply to hold onto the football.
Unfortunately, the Bulldogs weren’t able to carry out those orders.
They almost scored first after the break but Aiden Tolman was denied a try when it looked like he might have grounded a Moses Mbye grubber that eluded everyone else.
Two minutes later Thurston broke the line and and put Lowe away unchecked for his second try of the night.
Coen Hess and Taumalolo also crossed in that second stanza while Curtis Rona scored for the Bulldogs off a midfield bomb, before Eastwood helped himself to a soft second at the death.