North Queensland, welcoming back World Cup stars Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Brent Tate, have beaten Gold Coast 28-12 in a NRL trial in Toowoomba.
North Queensland’s perfect pre-season is complete with the Cowboys beating Gold Coast 28-12 on Saturday night in front of a packed house in Toowoomba.
The Auckland Nines champions welcomed back World Cup stars Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Brent Tate, but all the focus was on who would win the coveted fullback jersey left vacant by Matt Bowen (Wigan).
With Lachlan Coote cut down with an ACL injury from the Nines tournament, the Cowboys packed four fullbacks into their trial squad.
But Zac Santo, Javid Bowen and Matthew Wright struggled to find minutes with Michael Morgan impressing so much that he didn’t leave the field until the 59th minute before returning to score the match-winning try.
Morgan’s first involvement was outstanding, tested with a high ball and promptly smashed into the turf when he gathered it in, he sprung from the turf and put a fend on Brad Tighe to dash 40m upfield.
He was then involved in a slick left-side play, with winger Antonio Winterstein coming close to opening the scoring, before a dusty Thurston cross-field kick was batted back by fellow Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt for Tariq Sims to score.
Santo also pressed his claims, solid under the high ball and throwing a superb long pass to put Winterstein over in the corner in the 67th minute.
Queensland and Australian prop Scott also impressed, playing big minutes in his first match of the year while Thurston ultimately warmed up with a hand in three tries and four conversions.
Paul Carter was busy at hooker for Gold Coast, the son of former Penrith great Steve putting a case forward for round-one inclusion.
First-choice Titans rake Matt Srama (shoulder) and Beau Falloon (hamstring) sat out the trial.
Carter, 21, set up the first Gold Coast try when he took on the line in the 21st minute, sucked in three defenders and popped a clever offload to put Greg Bird in beside the sticks.
Sam Irwin also played well at hooker in his return from an ankle injury.
Coach John Cartwright tried a range of centre and wing combinations following the off-season departure of Jamal Idris (Penrith), with former Cowboy Kalifa Fai Fai Loa a late inclusion with recruits Maurice Blair (Melbourne) and Brad Tighe (Panthers).
The Titans bombed three genuine opportunities, halfback Albert Kelly twice spilling the ball with the line in sight.
Jason Taumalolo helped the North Queenslanders to a halftime lead, latching onto a Thurston short ball to crash through the line and run 20m to score.
Glenn Hall extended the lead in the 47th minute, his converted try pushing the score out to 16-6.
Mark Ioane edged the Titans back to within four points in the 51st minute, crashing in under the posts for a converted try. But Winterstein answered with his late try, converted from the sideline by Thurston.
Titans coach John Cartwright wasn’t concerned with the loss, after running 24 players through their paces in the “tough hitout”.
A decision on who will line up in the backline and where is still unsettled.
“There’s three or four guys there shooting for a spot,” Cartwright said. “We’ll make a decision on that next week.”
But it appears certain that Carter has secured a bench spot at the minimum after his willing performance.
“He was very strong, he was strong through the trials and he was really hard to handle tonight.
“He covers a few spots there, he covers hooker and he covers back-row so he’s going to be a handy player for us,” Cartwright said.
While the Morgan experiment paid dividends for new North Queensland coach Paul Green, Santo was also strong and second-rowers Tariq Sims and Jason Taumalolo punched holes on the fringes at will, giving him plenty to think about before the Cowboys’ round-one clash with Canberra.
“Right across the team, I’ve got quite a few selection headaches,” Green said. “But they’re good problems to have.
“(Morgan and Santo) both went really well.
“If anything, it has made the decision hard for me.”
There were no injuries for either side coming out of the match.