Payten’s faith repaid as Cowboys show they’re real deal by shooting down Eels

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The Cowboys have proved they are legitimate finals contenders by thrashing Parramatta but for coach Todd Payten, it only reinforced a belief that he’s had since the start of the season.

North Queensland entered Round 8 with the NRL’s second-best defensive record and they proved their new-found resilience is no fluke by upsetting title contenders Parramatta 35-4 at TIO Stadium in Darwin on Saturday night.

North Queensland rose to a 5-3 record and surged past the Eels and Sharks on percentages into third spot behind competition pacesetters Penrith and Melbourne.

They are on course to make the finals for the first time since the unlikely 2017 run to the grand final.

The Cowboys had beaten four teams who did not make the finals last year with their only previous win over 2021 finals side coming last week when they put away the struggling Titans. But this win will make the rest of the competition sit up and take notice.

“I always believed after the first couple of rounds that we could be a good team,” he said.

“There were some tough moments last year and we made some really long-term decisions at the back end of last year that are starting to bear fruit now. We got some game time into some of our kids. Tommy Dearden, we stuck solid with him. We just needed to add a bit of leadership and some good people into our environment.”

Payten faces a welcome selection headache with Scott Drinkwater firing at fullback and Maroons representative Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow making a return from the bench after a month out with a knee injury.

“I don’t think we had a lot of ball in that first 20-minute period of the game but won the game on the back foot, on the back of our defence so I’m pretty pleased,” Payten said.

“Repetition in the off-season and we’ve got combinations that have been together now for a long period,” he said when asked for the secrets of their dramatic uptick in defence. “We haven’t faced any injury challenges as yet and want and desire and keep working hard for your teammates, which ws great to watch.”

The Eels had all the field position in the first half hour of the match but the Cowboys’ defence held firm before an uncharacteristic error from Eels fullback Clint Gutherson in coughing up a bomb gave them a rare foray into enemy territory in the NT. 

Scott Drinkwater spiraled a phenomenal pass to the right wing which Kyle Feldt needed to accelerate onto, which he did to touch down out wide. 

Drinkwater was overlooked for selection in the halves in the first four rounds but has been electric at fullback over the past month. 

Valentine Holmes, after opening the scoring with an early penalty goal, nailed the sideline conversion to give North Queensland an 8-0 lead. 

They extended their lead a few minutes later when 200-gamer Chad Townsend lobbed a perfectly placed high kick for Feldt to outleap Hayze Perham on the flank. 

Holmes not only drilled a second straight conversion from touch but added a field goal as the half-time siren sounded for a 15-0 buffer. 

Shaun Lane crashed over from short range seven minutes into the second stanza but the ball slipped from the Eel’s grasp in the sweaty tropics.

Parra received a penalty for Townsend being offside at marker but North Queensland again repelled yet another attacking set.

“It’s like they’re defending with 14 or 15 players, the Cowboys, at the moment. There just looks no way through for the Parramatta side. As they continue to offload and ask questions, the Cowboys just continue to turn up,” Fox League analyst Michael Ennis said in commentary.

Parramatta went close to scoring in the 52nd minute, against the run of play, when Will Penisini crossed after a Cowboys error but a Mitchell Moses knock-on in the lead-up led to the bunker flashing up the red verdict.

When Feldt completed his hat-trick from a scrum move in the 57th minute the result looked over but Perham hit back six minutes later to make it 19-4 and give the Eels a faint sniff.

DARWIN, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 30: Coen Hess of the Cowboys looks to pass as he is tackled during the round eight NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the North Queensland Cowboys at TIO Stadium, on April 30, 2022, in Darwin, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

(Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

But the match was sealed five minutes from the final siren when captain Jason Taumalolo skittled five defenders in a barnstorming run and five-eighth Tom Dearden dived over on the next play with the defensive line in tatters.

Tabuai-Fidow celebrated his return from injury when he backed up Drinkwater to speed past Gutherson to the line in the 77th minute. The Hammer then sparked another attacking raid in the closing seconds and Drinkwater was the beneficiary of the final try of the night after a clever chip and chase.

“That was awesome. That’s probably the best win we’ve had since I’ve been up here,” said Drinkwater, who made his NRL debut with Melbourne before heading north in 2019, on Fox League post game. “How ruthless we were against a top-four team.

“Our defence in that first 20-25 [minutes] was something you haven’t seen from us for a couple of years.”

Eels coach Brad Arthur said they need to be prepared for “every team coming after us” as one of the title fancies.

“They were too good for us, they executed their plan really well and it was a bit of an arm wrestle early, we had a couple of opportunities that we didn’t take and our response to that was not good enough,” Eels coach Brad Arthur said.

“We just need to get back to whatever’s next.”

And next on the agenda is a trip to Penrith next Friday night for a showdown against the Panthers where they will be massive underdogs against their western Sydney arch rivals.

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