When it comes to the NRL premiership, right now there’s Penrith and there’s Melbourne and somewhere in the back is everybody else.
Don’t be fooled by the damp squib the two runaway leaders served up at Magic Round, where the Panthers arrived locked and loaded and the Storm kept their powder dry. They are still the class of this competition, the twin suns around which the rest of the league is in constant orbit.
There’s only one way to join this very exclusive club and that’s by beating one of the existing members. Even if you crash to a loss the following week, like Parramatta did against the Roosters barely seven days after they lowered Penrith’s colours, it’s a piece of street cred not soon forgotten.
That’s what North Queensland, the surprise packets of the 2022 season, are playing for over the next fortnight, when they ride the lightning and take on both of the top two. Through ten rounds, the Cowboys have earned curiosity from the many who tipped them to finish in the doldrums yet again, now it’s time to see if they can win some attention.
The numbers are strong for Todd Payten’s side. They’re sitting in third spot, having won five in a row. In their last four games they’ve scored 30 points or more, and through the entire season they’ve conceded just 125 points, which is fewer than any other team bar Penrith.
But the stats only tell half the story. This is a team playing with swagger, with a fearsome certainty that there is a vibe around the place right now. Chad Townsend, the most maligned purchase of the off-season, is playing his best football in years and Tom Dearden, who plenty were ready to throw on the scrap heap at 19, is proving why there were so many wraps on him as a schoolboy.
Murray Taulagi is throwing passes we don’t have names for. Prop forward Reuben Cotter is running 60 metres to score tries while dummying to nobody. Backrower Jeremiah Nanai has scored eight tries, all of them off kicks, all of them with a nose for the ball that would bring a tear to Matt Sing’s eye. After two years where he looked mortal due to broken hands and rule changes, Jason Taumalolo is once again looking like that old strength which could move earth and heaven.
But the one Cowboy who sums up what the club has fast become is fullback Scott Drinkwater. The 25-year old is as gifted a creative attacking player as there is in the NRL – his speed, footwork, kicking game and ability to play both within and outside 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 Drinkwater. The Storm know it better than most, because it was at the Storm where he was originally earmarked as Billy Slater’s long-term replacement.
He was that classic Melbourne story – a junior they scouted and stashed in the Queensland Cup for seasoning, hidden away north of the border from all but the keenest eyes. Drinkwater won the starting fullback job in the 2019 pre-season after Slater’s retirement, but tore his pectoral muscle in a trial game and missed half the year.
He was replaced by Jahrome Hughes, who played so well he was shoehorned into halfback once Ryan Papenhuyzen’s name had gone from difficult to pronounce to up in bright lights, and the horse had pretty much bolted. The other player to slot in at fullback for Melbourne that year was Nicho Hynes.
These days, that’s three of the biggest names in the game, who have had so much happen to them with plaudits and premierships and contracts so big they make your head spin. All of that could have happened to Drinkwater, if he hadn’t had some bad luck at the worst time, and with the path to first grade so crowded once he returned he transferred north to Townsville, where he split time between the halves and fullback for the next two seasons.
Drinkwater’s attack remained strong once he headed north – he won Player of the Tournament honours at the Perth Nines in 2020 – but defensive issues stopped him from hitting true NRL stardom. He wasn’t even in the team to begin this season. Hamsio Tabuai-Fidow was preferred at fullback until injury opened the door for Drinkwater to line up at fullback once again, and his return coincided with the Cowboys transforming into what they have become.
Townsend is a workmanlike and intelligent half, a product of his long experience at the top level, Dearden is feisty and clever, hooker Reece Robson is quite possibly the most underrated player in the NRL, but Drinkwater provides the touch of class that makes the Cowboys rise above the teams they’ve dispatched in recent weeks.
If this is the moment it happens for Drinkwater, if this current run of form is not just another good patch but a transition from good first-grader to something more than that, there are few limits to what he can achieve.
But to be one of those guys you can’t just do it against the rest, it must also happen when you take on the best. Drinkwater comes full circle this weekend when the Cowboys play Melbourne on Saturday and for an added twist, have a guess who the Storm were playing against when he tore his pec and lost the jersey he’d rightfully won? It was, of course, the Cowboys.
You can poke holes in Payten’s team if you really try. They’ve lost to the Bulldogs and Warriors this year. They have that brutalising win over Parramatta, a 35-4 belting in the Northern Territory heat which was quickly forgotten when the Eels beat Penrith the following week, but their only other game against the current top six came when they lost badly to a Roosters side that was still finding their own way.
But that defeat, plus the two earlier losses, was before Drinkwater came back into the side, before everything changed, before they saddled up for what is increasingly look like a ride to the top four.
So this is where we are. This is the time to find out. The Storm might be missing Papenhuyzen and Reimis Smith and Nelson Asofa-Solomona, but they are still favourites because they are the Storm, a champion side even when they don’t win the title.
It is time for the Cowboys to go big-game hunting, and if they end up with the Storm’s head on their mantle they won’t be a surprise packet anymore, there will be no more ambushes, they’ll go through the rest of the year knowing they matched it with the best and teams will circle them on the calender.
They won’t get a better chance than this to prove their mettle, to themselves and the wider football world. Apart from Melbourne’s absences, this one is at North Queensland Stadium, where the fans show up in droves even in the tough times, so when times are good the seats sell faster than a cold beer on a humid Townsville afternoon. As of Thursday, 21,500 punters have already snapped up a ticket.
This is a fanbase who has been out of the finals for five years and have never really had a premiership contender on their hands without Johnathan Thurston being involved. They never stop believing, but now they’re ready to start winning.
Next week will be a different case altogether. Winter has come to New South Wales, Penrith is colder than anywhere else in Sydney and going into the screaming black hole of madness out at Panthers Stadium is an easy to way to finish a night battered, bruised, beaten and feeling bad about yourself.
But if the Cowboys beat the Storm and look good doing it, North Queensland vs Penrith becomes a top of the table clash, first vs second, and maybe we’ll get that game of the year we thought would happen at Magic Round. Maybe two really can turn into three.