IF FOOTY was played on paper, what a predictable world it would be. Prime example: the clash between the Warriors and Cowboys at Mt Smart Stadium in Auckland yesterday.
With the addition of Nathan Friend, who broke his jaw only two months ago, the Warriors were effectively at full strength and hungry for victory after blowing their last encounter, against Cronulla.
Missing their four best players through Origin duties, the Cowboys weren’t expected to trouble the hosts. The late inclusion of Matt Bowen offered a hint of salvation, but surely it wouldn’t be enough.
With the visitors down 16-0 after only 13 minutes, it looked like predictions would be proved true.
Take away Johnathan Thurston, James Tamou, Matt Scott and Brent Tate, and the Warriors will gallop home. Surely.
Lucky footy games aren’t just played on paper. And while, in the end, it was a comfortable win to the Warriors, the Cowboys did provide their hosts with some worries.
A two-try second-half fightback, led by Bowen, had the visitors close within four points. Yet handling and errors at crucial moments handed Brian McClennan’s men momentum.
The most crucial phase was when the Warriors had three straight sets after constant pressure on the North Queensland in-goal.
The visitors hung tough, but hooker Friend, whose presence on the park the Warriors have missed, scored with 12 minutes to go to effectively clinch it.
Cowboys coach Neil Henry was disappointed and angry with his side’s opening quarter, but was pleased with how they kept fighting. An intercept pass in the final quarter was crucial, he said.
‘‘At 22-18, we missed a golden opportunity. There was an error there, we threw an intercept pass,’’ he said.
‘‘We needed to take that and possibly could have gone into the lead. We’d had a bit of possession and the Warriors were looking a bit vulnerable. We were playing a bit quicker. But to their credit, they came back and nailed us.’’
The Warriors hit the ground running, with a double to Ben Henry and centres partner Konrad Hurrell, who limped off late with a hamstring issue. Offload king Feleti Mateo was in entertaining form, making six hand-offs and one spectacular line break, while mercurial halfback Shaun Johnson was a constant threat with ball in hand and on foot.
Though Jacob Lillyman scored, the home side faltered early in the second half. McClennan had a sinking feeling about what was unfolding.
‘‘[The Cowboys] went through that period and I thought they had the momentum in a big way,’’ the former Kiwis coach said. ‘‘They were winning territory with their kicks, playing quick and following on. They were playing a bit fast for us. Through that period there, I thought – ‘Jeez, we’re in trouble here.’
‘‘At that stage, the penalty count was 4-1 and we got a penalty and that’s when we ended up going up, getting some territory and we got three repeat sets in a row and breaking the ice and got a flood of points.’’
Though interchange player Lewis Brown, bound for Penrith next year, scored last, it was Friend’s try that that broke the Cowboys’ backs. A game already won on paper by most pundits, finally finished off on the footy paddock.
WARRIORS 35 (B Henry 2, L Brown, NFriend, K Hurrell, J Lillyman tries; JMaloney 5 goals, field goal) bt NORTH QUEENSLAND 18 (G Cooper, A Graham, K Linnett tries; M Bowen 3goals) at Mt Smart Stadium.
Referees: Brett Suttor, Ashley Klein. Crowd: 15,374.