Bennett shows worth again as Dolphins enter top four

Scott Bailey |

Playmaker Kodi Nikorima (l) pulled the strings as the Dolphins won a thriller against the Cowboys.
Playmaker Kodi Nikorima (l) pulled the strings as the Dolphins won a thriller against the Cowboys.

Wayne Bennett’s Dolphins have sent South Sydney another reminder of what the master coach can offer, returning to the top four with a 28-26 win over North Queensland.

In an old-fashioned Townsville shootout, the Cowboys and Dolphins scored 10 tries between them on Saturday night as the lead changed hands five times.

Ultimately, Kodi Nikorima and Jamayne Isaako proved the difference, with the former setting up four tries and the latter scoring 20 points on his own in the win.

After tries came thick and fast – at the rate of one every six minutes in the first 50 minutes – the game tightened up late with the score locked at 22-22.

Jake Averillo landed the decisive blow for the visitors with 12 minutes left, chasing through on a grubberkick from Nikorima to make it 28-22.

The Cowboys gave themselves late hope when Scott Drinkwater put Jeremiah Nanai through a hole, only for Valentine Holmes to miss the conversion.

North Queensland had one last attack and twice appealed for offsides, but were denied and consigned to a fourth straight loss.

There are no such worries for Bennett’s Dolphins.

The veteran coach is top of the Rabbitohs’ wish list to replace Jason Demetriou next year, and Souths officials need not be told twice what Bennett can offer.

Still, Rabbitohs bosses were given another reminder of it on Saturday night.

The Dolphins were tipped by most to struggle this year, particularly after they lost inspirational forward Tom Gilbert to a knee injury before the season even began.

But one-third of the way through the year, and they now sit in fourth spot.

Bennett will depart the club at year’s end and hand over to Kristian Woolf, but the 74-year-old’s fingerprints are on everything the Dolphins are doing.

Nikorima is off contract and is a player that has bounced around from club to club, but the 30-year-old had one of his best nights in years.

Bennett’s 20-year-old half Isaiya Katoa continues to come of age, and combined brilliantly with Nikorima.

Three times in the first half Katoa went to the line and held the defence up, before combining with Nikorima for the five-eighth to put an outside man over.

Isaako scored twice off the plays before the break, while Tesi Niu crossed once.

More impressive was the way the Dolphins held their nerve after slipping behind 10-0 inside six minutes.

The Cowboys made clear they planned on playing expansively from the outset, with Valentine Holmes busting down field from the second tackle of the match.

Kyle Feldt and Reuben Cotter both scored shortly after, before the Dolphins got themselves back to 22-18 down at halftime.

Kyle Feldt.
A Kyle Feldt special helped the Cowboys to a handy early lead. (Scott Radford-Chisholm/AAP PHOTOS)

After the break it was the Dolphins who turned it on, with Averillo flicking a ball back inside for Isaako to get his third and hand them the lead.

“He was pretty good,” Bennett said.

“It was a crazy game … they had to overcome a lot to get that win.”

The victory came at some cost for the Dolphins, with Niu suffering a serious-looking ankle injury and Felise Kaufusi going on report for a high shot.

But the Cowboys have bigger concerns, leaking an average of 27 points per game this year.

“It’s super frustrating, makes me really angry and disappointed,” coach Todd Payten said.

“We started fast but just unable to defend back-to-back sets, really disappointing.”