There’s Penrith and Melbourne, and everyone is in the back regarding the NRL premiership.
Don’t be fooled by the damp squib the two runaway leaders served at Magic Round, where the Panthers arrived closed and loaded, and the Storm kept their powder dry. They are still the league of this league, the twin suns that the rest constantly revolves around.
There is only one way to join this exclusive club, to beat one of the existing members. Even if you crash the next week at a loss, as Parramatta did to the Roosters just seven days after they lowered Penrith’s suits, it’s a slice of street value you won’t forget.
That’s what North Queensland, the 2022 season’s surprise packs, are in for over the next two weeks as they ride the lightning and take on both of the top two. For ten rounds, the Cowboys have sparked the curiosity of the many who tipped them to end up in the doldrums again; now it’s time to see if they can get some attention.
The numbers are strong for Todd Payten’s side. They are in third place and have won five in a row. In their last four games, they have scored 30 points or more and conceded just 125 points throughout the season, which is less than any other team, bar Penrith.
But the statistics only tell half the story. This team plays with swagger, with the terrifying certainty that there is an atmosphere. Chad Townsend, the most reviled purchase of the off-season, is playing his best football in years, and Tom Dearden, who at 19 was ready enough to throw into the scrap heap, proves why he was so much in the shoes as a schoolboy. †
Murray Taulagi throws passes we don’t have names for. Prop forward Reuben Cotter runs 60 yards to score attempts while dummy to no one. Backrower Jeremiah Nanai has scored eight tries, all off kicks, all with a nose for the ball that would make Matt Sing burst into tears. After two years of looking mortal from broken hands and rule changes, Jason Taumalolo looks like that ancient force that could move heaven and earth again.
But the one Cowboy who quickly sums up what the club has become is fullback Scott Drinkwater. The 25-year-old is just as gifted as a creative attacking player as he is in the NRL – his speed, footwork, kick play, and ability to play both inside and outside the structure make him dangerous all over the field, while his left to right cut – out pass is nice enough to take home and introduce to the family.
Those qualities have always existed within Drinking Water. The Storm knows it better than most, as it was in the Storm where he was originally destined to be Billy Slater’s long-term replacement.
He was that classic Melbourne story—a junior they explored and hid in the Queensland Cup for spice, tucked away north of the border from all but the keenest of eyes. Drinkwater won the starting fullback in the 2019 preseason after Slater’s retirement but tore his pectoral muscle in a trial match and missed half the year.
He was replaced by Jahrome Hughes, who played so well that he became halfback when Ryan Papenhuyzen’s name had changed from hard-to-pronounce to bright light, and the horse was practically on the run. The other Player brought in as a fullback for Melbourne that year was Nicho Hynes.
Today, those are three of the biggest names in the game, having been through so much with them with critical acclaim and premierships and contracts so big it’ll make your head spin. All of that could have happened to Drinkwater had he not been unlucky at the worst time, and with the path to first grade so busy when he returned, he moved north to Townsville, where he split the time between halves and the fullback for the next two seasons.
Drinkwater’s attack remained strong as he moved north – he won Player of the Tournament honors with the Perth Nines in 2020 – but defensive problems kept him from achieving true NRL stardom. He wasn’t even on the team to start this season. Hamsio Tabuai-Fidow was favored as a fullback until injury opened the door for Drinkwater to re-line as a fullback. His return coincided with the Cowboys’ transformation into what they have become.
Townsend is a skilled and intelligent half, a product of his long experience at the highest level; Dearden is feisty and smart, Whore Reece Robson may be the most underrated Player in the NRL, but Drinkwater provides the touch of class that the Cowboys make rise above the teams they have sent out in recent weeks.
If now is the time for it to happen for Drinkwater, if this current form is not just a good patch but a transition from a good first division to something more than that, there are few limits to what he can achieve.
Drinking Water comes around this weekend when the Cowboys face Melbourne on Saturday, and for an extra twist, guess who the Storm was playing against when he ripped his pecs and lost the jersey he deservedly won? It was, of course, the Cowboys. But to be one of that gu, you can’t just compete against the re; it has to happen when you compete against the best.
You can poke holes in Payten’s team if you try. They lost to the Bulldogs and Warriors this year. They have that brutal win over Parramatta, a 35-4 tie in the Northern Territory heat, which was quickly forgotten when the Eels defeated Penrith the following week. Still, their only other match against the current top six came when they lost heavily to a Roosters’ side, still looking for their way.
But that defeat, plus the two previous losses, was before Drinkwater returned to the side, before everything changed before they saddled up for what looks more and more like a ride to the top four.
So this is where we are. The Storm may be missing Papenhuyzen, Reimis Smith, and Nelson Asofa-Solomona; they are still favorites because they are the Storm, a champion, even if they don’t win the title. Now is the time to find out.
It’s time for the Cowboys to hunt big game, and when they end up with the Storm’s head on their mantle, they won’t be a surprise pack, there will be no more ambushes, and they’ll spend the rest of the year knowing that they will match it with the best matches and teams will circle them on the calendar.
They won’t get a better chance than this to prove their mettle to themselves and the wider football world. Melbourne’s absence aside, this one is at the North Queensland Stadium, where the fans show up in droves even in difficult times, so when times are right, the seats sell out quicker than a cold beer on a damp Townsville afternoon. As of Thursday, 21,500 gamblers have already secured a ticket.
Cowboys fans are hungry for success. (ABC News: Jesse Dorsett)
This fan base has been out of the final for five years and has never really had their hands on a contender for the premiership without Johnathan Thurston being involved. They never stop believing, but now they are ready to start winning.
Next week will be a very different case. Winter has arrived in New South Wales; Penrith is colder than anywhere else in Sydney. Entering the screaming black hole of madness at Panthers Stadium is an easy way to end an evening battered, bruised, beaten, and bad about yourself. Close.
But if the Cowboys beat the Storm and look good, North Queensland vs. Penrith will be a top game, first against second, and maybe we’ll get that game of the year we thought would happen at Magic Round. Maybe two can become three.