Following three years of what has seemed to be the same story each year – high hopes in pre-season that the Cowboys will hit their straps and be the team to match their roster quality on paper, only to be followed by knowing what to expect and a same routine each week – losing 84-20 over the two weeks prior to this week’s game should’ve been something close to water off a duck’s back for me.
However, this week was slightly different. Usually, I have managed to maintain a slight sense of optimism through the week of each game that my beloved Cowboys will play this week. But not this week. I noticed through the week that this was the first time in a very long time that I had such an ugly feeling. This week I had felt absolute contempt, and it was almost as if I really wasn’t looking forward to this game. I was almost emotionless through the week.
Why shouldn’t I have been?
Coming into this game there was no Michael Morgan, Scott Drinkwater or Valentine Holmes – three designated members of the Cowboys’ spine. Debutant Daejarn Asi was tasked with occupying the five-eighth position alongside Jake Clifford. While Clifford is silky and skilful, his game management is yet to be seen in his NRL career.
Meanwhile, the Panthers were the scorers of the second most points in the league after Round 9. Penrith were the highest set completers and the lowest in conceding errors and line breaks heading into this game. They were back at their beloved stadium at the foot of the mountains. They have a spine that is rightfully receiving countless amounts of recognition despite losing star playmaker James Maloney to a rich Catalans Dragons deal last season.
The cards were firmly stacked against the Cowboys. However, they didn’t disappoint this week, and while not a win, it’s the best I have felt since our shock upset over the Knights.
While his NRL career games are only in the single digits, and it hasn’t been a full year since he’d legally been allowed to buy himself a beer, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow had been dealt a difficult task in playing in the fullback role for the Cowboys.
There has been a lot to like about the Cairns product, especially his Perth Nines performances, which blew many rugby league fans away with being able to leave regular first graders clawing for air at a pace that had comparisons drawn to Storm speedster Josh Addo-Carr.
While he had appeared somewhat gun shy on the attack in recent weeks, like many Cowboys fans, I had been waiting to see him back himself in open space – and my wish was finally granted.
He was a big-bodied, Christchurch-born, touch footy star through his junior years.
Even most Cowboys fans were searching the internet to try and find some information on the number 14 that Paul Green had named for his NRL debut on Tuesday afternoon, but if they’re like me, they’ll be hoping to see his name on the sheet again for next week’s game against a Manly side who had pulled off a gritty win against Parramatta.
A try, three tackle breaks, 18 tackles, two missed tackles and a tidy kicking game made for a performance sufficient to say Asi held his own and didn’t look out place on debut. There was plenty to like, and to the relief of many Cowboys fans, he signed for three years in February.
In addition to the glimpse of what the man called by his teammates as “the cheetah” is capable of, what I found the most pleasing about the Tabuai-Fidow try was the support play leading up to it.
With Reece Robson, an eyes-up hooker that suits the modern game as a dummy-half, Scott Drinkwater, a pacy, opportunistic, creative playmaker/fullback, and Valentine Holmes, whose pace and ability to break lines is what earned him his status in the NRL as a Shark, support play should be fundamental in the Cowboys’ attack.
However, it had almost seemed that Paul Green’s men had forgotten what support runs are. Here’s hoping it continues next week.
The painstakingly obvious difference between the two sides was the game management.
Twenty-two-year-old Nathan Cleary continued to show an ability to manage a game and take control of his side beyond his years, particularly in the second half when it mattered. This is the making of a player who will win the accolades.
This is where Michael Morgan is the man for the Cowboys – and what they have missed following the retirement of Johnathan Thurston.
While Morgan has endured his critics, he can manage a game and this has only become more obvious for the Cowboys in recent weeks.
The second half
While the Cowboys lack the game manager, what has been a thorn in the side for Cowboys fans is the 40-minute performances that we have been accustomed to seeing.
This week was no different, a 4-4 first half was cancelled out by an 18-6 losing second half.
Games are won over 80 minutes, not 40. And the Cowboys still can’t seem to grasp this concept if their performances over the last three years have been anything to go by.
Twelve errors from the Cowboys – even more than the amount made in last week’s thumping at the hands of the Sydney Roosters.
They were mostly cheap errors that didn’t need to be conceded, which shows that this is an area the Cowboys desperately need to improve and will likely become a regular occupant of this section of my new weekly segment.