All too often, sporting contests held out as the “match of the year” or
games “not to be missed”, fail to deliver, but that cannot be said of Sunday’s
NRL match between the Newcastle Knights and the North Queensland Cowboys.

For the record the Cowboys won by 18-16 –
but with 17 minutes to go the Knights were ahead by 16-6 and looked to have the
game “in the bag”.

It was a match with all the drama you would
hope for from a top of the table clash. Knights captain Andrew Johns struggled
with an ankle injury throughout the second half, but that was nothing compared
with the plight of the referee, Paul Simpkins.

Simpkins, the number one whistleblower at
present, broke down in the 28th minute and had to be replaced as
referee by Tony De Las Heras for the rest of the game.

The rookie referee was under enormous
pressure, and made a few blunders – but at the end of the day the game was won
by the Cowboys after a piece of pure brilliance from Matt Bowen.

The back page of the Daily Telegraph
yesterday screamed: “Pick Thurston – Cowboys Demand Test Spot.” What a pity the
report did not highlight what an epic contest the game was instead of yet
another comparison between Johnathan Thurston and Andrew Johns.

While Thurston matched it with the great
man yesterday, Johns was clearly carrying an injury for much of the match, and
it might now be an academic argument as Johns is likely to be out for a couple
of weeks, putting his farewell test appearance early next month in doubt.

The game was an outstanding advertisement
for rugby league. It delivered all that it promised – and a bit more.

The Cowboys now have a four point lead at
the top of the premiership. But if Johns
can be held together for the rest of the season the Knights will be worthy
contenders next time they meet. They remain the stand out teams of the 2006
premiership race. That is the real message from Sunday’s match.

Peter Fray

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