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The North Queensland Cowboys have struck an important early blow in their 2013 premiership campaign, accounting for last year's minor premiers the Canterbury Bulldogs 24-12 at Bluetongue Stadium.
The game started with a bang, the Cowboys producing points in the opening set through last year's equal-top tryscorer Ashley Graham. Untouchable halfback Johnathan Thurston's towering kick to the corner wasn't taken cleanly by Steve Turner, who was named to play at fullback but switched to the wing as Drury Low deputised at fullback. Turner was crunched by Cowboys centre Brent Tate, and Graham was able to pounce on the loose ball for some early points.
The Bulldogs were able to hit back immediately however, finding the line through their first use of the football. Obviously looking to utilise the width of the field early they went left and then right, Eastwood and Low combining before Josh Reynolds picked off a knocked down offload in broken play to score. Inu landed the simple conversion and it was 6-4 to the Dogs.
The Cowboys promised much from the outset but it was again the home side who grabbed the next points, with a raided started by Reynolds and Perrett combining to make good ground down the right edge. Deep in Cowboys territory the ball switched to the left on the next play, and when Brett Morris was able to evade Ashley Graham's tackle after going back to collect a pass Brent Tate's touch wasn't enough to stop him finding Steve Turner on the wing for the try.
The lead was extended to 8 just minutes later, when Krisnan Inu took the two points from 30m out after the Cowboys were penalised for a ruck infringement.
That's where the good news ended for Bulldogs fans, with one-way traffic ensuing. The magic of Thurston was again on show as he dummied, dropped the shoulder and was able to beat Tony Williams on the inside, getting away an offload to Gavin Cooper who was able to muscle his way over the line for the Cowboys' second try of the evening. The superstar half was at it again just four minutes later, Sam Perrett's decision to not drop back triggering a pinpoint grubber from Thurston. Winterstein was able to win the race for the ball, Thurston nailed the conversion and all of a sudden the Cowboys had the lead again, 16 - 12.
Two penalty goals either side of half time further extended the visitors' lead, the first coming off the back of three consecutive infringements by the Bulldogs in not making it back the ten or getting square at marker, while a two-man strip on the hard running Tariq Sims brought about the second.
The Cowboys finished off a strong all-round performance with a second try to Ash Graham in the 58th minute, the entire Cowboys spine conspiring to put the winger over in the corner. Some resolute defence was required to maintain the lead as the Dogs threw all they had at the Cowboys' defence, with Drury Low often troubling the defence, including showing exceptional pace down the right touchline to be stopped by the efforts of Matthew Bowen and Thurston just metres short of the line, while it took two fantastic defensive efforts by Kane Linnett to prevent rampaging second rower Tony Williams from breaching the line for what would have been certain tries.
Both sides showed signs of the potential that has them amongst the favourites for the premiership this year, and Dogs fan will be particularly heartened by the performances of their young forwards and stand-in fullback Drury Low, who performed admirably in filling the giant shoes of Ben Barba. It was a solid all-round effort from the Cowboys, who clicked into gear after conceeding soft points early. As always the performances of big-men Matt Scott and James Tamou can be lauded, while Jason Taumalolo produced a number of strong runs to show he deserves his spot in the top grade. In what is a little-used phrase in Townsville the outside backs were strong in defence, and Thurston worked his magic to ensure a comfortable victory.