Let’s face it, what’s the point of a Facetime interview if not for this?
The Cowboys beat Canterbury 24-16 last night at an eerie ANZ Stadium. They wouldn’t have beaten many other teams. It was a squalid second stanza.
Before last night’s game, the Cowboys were 9-12 in Sydney and hadn’t won there since beating Manly in May 2018. That’s a five-game losing streak. Any way you stack it, the Cowboys look weak in Sydney. The Cowboys hadn’t won at ANZ Stadium since John Asiata scored his first NRL try against the Eels in the 2017 run to the grand final.
That streak was broken against a self-destructive Canterbury last night. The Cowboys were far from clinical. Errors and conceded penalties with an opposition player in the bin are usually not recommended. Scoring in the second half usually helps. But the building combinations between Michael Morgan, Scott Drinkwater, Valentine Holmes, Coen Hess and Jason Taumalolo give North Queensland something to build on for season 2020.
Taumalolo ran wider in attack, and ran a long, long way. More of that please, Paul Green.
Holmes’ hands are as soft as a baby’s behind. Drinkwater needs to learn to defend in the line very, very quickly, or Jake Clifford will have his six jumper.
Fifth-tackle options, particularly Drinkwater’s kicking, will no doubt be a main effort this week at training.
What impressed me was the lead-up to that win. The Cowboys’ preparation for that game cannot have been easy.
On the surface, there was a chartered round trip to Sydney. No virus-infected airport terminals. No hanging around the Qantas Club chomping on ham and cheese sandwiches. No hotels to worry about. No three-day Sydney-based mini-camp with its bus ride from the city for the captain’s run. Less time away from family. A Thursday night game means less time to dwell on Round 1’s failures. Paul Green made the same point in his presser.
Simple preparation, right?
But this has been a tricky week for NRL teams. Players and staff are concerned for their season. Isolation. Quarantine. Possible pay cuts. Relocation away from families.
The Cowboys had a flight to catch on game day, and they faced another long flight home late last night after an 80-minute game. It’s uncomfortable sitting on 60-seat Fokker 70 like that for two and a half hours, especially when you’re sore. For sure, that will affect recovery for next week.
But the prospect of such things can have a mental effect, too. The players may have been dreading that late-night flight all week. It’s certainly something different and it’s imperfect preparation.
NRL players are not superhuman. In fact, with all due respect, most of them are just kids. They have bad days like the rest of us. They may have had their minds on unusual travel, empty stadiums (they are playing in Sydney, but this is different), results of concussion tests or their place in the team. Some players may have been concerned they didn’t have long enough to fix their defensive lapses with such a short turn-around.
The Cowboys have had psychologists working with the club since at least 1996, but brought in an outside sports psychologist in 2015 to develop mental resilience and mindfulness – staying in the moment. It’s true, correlation is not causation. But the Cowboys beat Melbourne in Round 4 that year and didn’t lose again until late June. I remember when the 11-game winning streak ended against the Sharks in Sydney. Cowboys led 18-0 at halftime and got run down, losing 24-18. The resilience ran out.
Not last night. The Cowboys showed enhanced mental strength from the get-go. They showed more determination and aggression than the vaunted Bulldogs pack. Key players refused to panic. Penalties and errors didn’t fundamentally weaken resolve, as in recent seasons. The team looked like a team. It was pleasing to see. Even if they did get plenty of practice defending.
Resilience was also visible in effort areas. Getting numbers in tackles. Preventing the offload. Forcing the ball carrier onto his back. Getting back to marker. Talking in defence. Chasing through the middle when the opposition makes a half-break.
They (mostly) defended their errors. They defended their line.
The Round 1 loss had two main causes. They Cowboys improved in both areas last night.
Last week I wrote about the Cowboys’ one-on-one tackling and defensive decision-making. There were fundamental defensive lapses across the park. If the Cowboys were going to beat the Bulldogs, their defence would need serious attention.
Last night North Queensland responded to the criticism, no doubt pleasing Paul Green and thousands of fans. Defensive decisions looked more conservative. One school of thought suggests that shows faith in the players around you, which is a good sign. The physicality of the Cowboys’ tackles was back in the green. This is the minimum standard.
With only five days to prepare for the Bulldogs clash, the improved effort without the ball proved all that off-season work had, indeed, been done. Last week’s dismal defensive performance now seems forgotten, and was more the result of poor mental strength and trust rather than structure and system.
The Round 1 loss also highlighted a lack of energy, where the Cowboys middle was out-enthused, out-muscled and overpowered. Even a casual observer would have noticed the absence of Matt Scott in Round 1.
Jordan McLean, Josh McGuire, John Asiata and the increasingly impressive Frank Molo needed to stand up physically. Taumalolo needed to be more involved, especially in defence. They responded. They looked hungrier than the Bulldogs. They had energy. And on-field talk seemed higher (probably just the lack of white noise on the TV). The bench of Molo, Asiata and Mitchell Dunn made a positive difference, where often NRL games bog down without the starters.
The Cowboys left Sydney late last night and didn’t get home until very early in the morning. And all night, watching them cling to victory, I had these words bouncing around in my head. The voice in my head wouldn’t shut up. You know the words I mean?
“You know the last plane out of Sydney’s almost gone. And it’s really got me worried. I’m goin’ nowhere and I’m in a hurry.”
Sounds like the Cowboys to me.