An injury-hit, underdog North Queensland Toyota Cowboys squad have given their 2014 season a fantastic start by winning the first NRL Auckland Nines tournament at a packed Eden Park.
Rated as $41 outsiders at the start of the day, the Cowboys won three matches out of four, including toppling red-hot tournament favourites NZ Warriors, to win the title and start a night of celebrations.
Outstanding defence kept the free-scoring Warriors scoreless in the semi-final and they then downed Queensland rivals Brisbane 16-7 in the final, conceding one try.
Skipper Gavin Cooper will go down in history as the first captain of a Cowboys team to win an NRL trophy, while coach Paul Green could not have asked for a better start to his time in charge of North Queensland.
Playing without fullback Lachlan Coote (knee) and Breakout Player of the Tournament award winner Kyle Feldt (hamstring), the Cowboys opened the scoring four minutes before half time in the final when Antonio Winterstein finished off a backline play out wide to score.
Robert Lui converted for a 6-0 lead.
Not long after, a grubber kick by five-eighth Michael Morgan saw the ball flicked out the back for winger Curtis Rona to give the Cowboys a 10-0 lead at half time.
The Broncos got a lucky break a minute into the second half when winger Javid Bowen put a foot on the sideline in open space, denying the Cowboys what could have been a third try.
North Queensland’s never-say-die defence was at its best midway through the second period.
Desperate tackles prevented Matt Gillett and Andrew McCullough from scoring in the same set of six, keeping the Cowboys more than a converted try clear.
The pressure eventually told when Ben Hunt scored a bonus try under the posts and he converted to leave Brisbane trailing 12-7.
The result was decided a minute later when the Cowboys responded with an attacking raid down the right side that saw centre Kane Linnett offload an inside pass for Rona to score his second try for a 16-7 scoreline.
Earlier on day two, the Cowboys lost the best match of the tournament, 28-23 to the Warriors, a defeat that left their quarter-final hopes in jeopardy.
The Canberra Raiders did North Queensland a huge favour by upsetting Manly to leave NQ second in the yellow pool, setting up a last-eight showdown against Penrith.
The first half was marred by a string of errors from both sides before late tries to Kyle Feldt and Tariq Sims, and two goals to Michael Morgan, saw the Cowboys lead 12-0 at half time.
Penrith produced a late rally with three second-half tries but to no avail in the end as a second to Feldt boosted the winning margin to 22-12.
The Cowboys made it an all-Queensland final with an 8-0 win over home favourites the Warriors, silencing the partisan 45,000-strong home crowd.
NQ opened the scoring when Feldt dived over in the left corner for a 4-0 lead.
The Cowboys went to an 8-0 lead when Javid Bowen finished off a backline play after a great offload earlier from half-back Robert Lui in a two-man tackle.
NRL Auckland Nines Final: North Queensland Toyota Cowboys 16 (Antonio Winterstein, Curtis Rona (2) tries, Robert Lui 2 goals) d Brisbane Broncos 7 (Ben Hunt try, Ben Hunt goal).