The Bulldogs downed the Knights before the Cowboys shored up their top-two spot with a win over a Dragons side who are rapidly losing touch with the top eight.
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Canterbury Bulldogs 24 def Newcastle Knights 10
Coach Adam O’Brien has defended Newcastle’s decision to cut Jacob Kiraz, who played the best game of his young career in Canterbury’s NRL 24-10 win over the Knights on Sunday.
Kiraz joined the Knights on a development contract last year but was stuck behind Starford To’a, Enari Tuala, Hymel Hunt and Dominic Young in the wing stakes.
The Knights let Kiraz go ahead of the 2022 season to leave room for one-time Queensland State of Origin winger Edrick Lee, who had recovered from a long-term foot injury.
Kiraz subsequently made the move to the Bulldogs, where he has played 10 games and signed as one of the most promising rookies of the season.
He scored three tries against the Knights in a game-defining performance but O’Brien stood by the club’s decision to part ways with Kiraz, insisting it was the right move at the time.
“He had a really good day. You’re going to have ones who come back and hurt you,” O’Brien said.
“At the time, Edrick (Lee) was coming good with that foot. We’d invested a fair sum in him and he didn’t have a spot in the team.
“Anyone put in that situation back then would probably have wanted to fit Edrick in the team.”
O’Brien admitted Kiraz’s sudden development into a bona fide first-grader had surprised him.
“If I’m really honest, I didn’t foresee him jumping to the levels he has this quickly. I didn’t spot that,” he said.
“But good luck to Kiraz. There’s no sour grapes on that.”
Kiraz is a favorite of interim coach Mick Potter, who has played the 20-year-old on the wing in each of his nine games in charge since taking over from Trent Barrett mid-season.
Potter was familiar Kiraz before replacing Barrett, having coached against Kiraz in reserve grade.
“When I was with Mounties, when Canterbury played us, I had to ask someone who that player was, because he was so elusive,” Potter said.
“It was good to see him get three tries today.”
Potter said Kiraz was now reaping the rewards for persevering with his NRL dream despite failing to make first grade at North Queensland and Newcastle.
“It’s a fantastic story that he’s going so well,” he said.
North Queensland Cowboys 34 def St George Illawarra 8
North Queensland have given their hopes of hosting their first home final in six years a massive boost, staying second with a 34-8 win over St George Illawarra.
In a crucial result for each team’s season, the Cowboys barely looked threatened at Kogarah before running away with the match late in the second half.
With five rounds to play, the Dragons’ season looks shot while North Queensland are now all but guaranteed to be finals-bound for the first time since 2017.
But much more beckons than just a return to the playoffs.
A crucial home game in the first week of the finals remains firmly in the Cowboys’ grasp, with the win keeping them two points clear of the chasing Cronulla with a far superior for-and-against.
A top-two finish would also guarantee a second home final beyond the opening week, meaning North Queensland can dare to dream of playing all of September in Townsville until the grand finale.
Among the favorites for the wooden spoon at the start of the season, the Cowboys are firming as a genuine title contender.
And for all the talk of their electrifying back five and impressive attack, it has been their forwards who have represented the biggest change.
Jeremiah Nanai scored two tries and Griffin Neame also crossed in Sunday’s win, while Jason Taumalolo had an influential second half, tempered only by being put on report for a shoulder charge.
The Cowboys’ first try was also from the work of Coen Hess, who earned a fast play-the-ball before Scott Drinkwater put Kyle Feldt over on the next play.
Moments later it was Nanai who produced the decisive play, bursting through the Dragons’ defense before sending Drinkwater over under the posts.
After the Cowboys led 10-8 at the break, their forwards helped ensure they would spend most of the second half on the Dragons’ line.
Taumalolo twice turned into provider as North Queensland pulled away, once going to the line and putting Neame through the middle of two defenders to score.
Nanai’s first four-pointer was also off the back of some Taumalolo brilliance, as the Cowboys star burst downfield and the second-rower scored from the next play.
His second came when he ran onto a deft Chad Townsend pass, taking the edge forward’s try tally for the year to 16.
In comparison, the Dragons were limited in their opportunities after not making the most of their chances in the first half.
Jack de Belin scored the Saints’ only try when he toed ahead a Ben Hunt offload that went to ground, but they only completed at 64 per cent after the break.
The result leaves them struggling to hold onto any hope of playing football finals this year, sitting two points out of the top eight with a horror for-and-against.