The Toyota Cowboys showed tremendous grit to hold out the Canterbury Bulldogs and regain the Reconciliation Cup for the first time since 2009 with a 20-12 win at ANZ Stadium tonight.
With winger Matt Wright collecting a first-half double and Johnathan Thurston in superb form guiding his team around the field and consistently pinning the Dogs back with his kicking game, North Queensland completed back-to-back wins in Sydney for the first time since the grand final season of 2005.
They had to do it without Test prop James Tamou for the final 63 minutes after he was forced off with concerns over a neck injury.
It was JT penalty goal in the final three minutes that sealed the win for North Queensland, who move to seventh place on the ladder, halfway through round 20.
Their draw to come features four games out of six at home, starting with the Gold Coast Titans on Saturday night.
The Cowboys were 1-17 for the second straight week with Kyle Feldt as 18th man. The Dogs regained fullback Sam Perrett but Origin centre Josh Morris’s comeback was put on hold for another week. Tony Williams was shifted to five-eighth with Moses Mbye in Morris’s centre position. Dale Finucane started at lock, with Harlan Alaalatoa being added to the bench.
The Cowboys came agonisingly close to scoring with their first real attacking threat of the night in the 10th minute.
A diving Matt Wright grounded the ball in the corner but the on-field call of “try” was overturned by the video referees who ruled the NQ winger had grounded the ball on the sideline in Sam Perrett’s tackle.
The near-miss was compounded soon after when smart Dogs passing gave Mitch Brown the opening four-pointer in the left corner – the try coming in the set after a Cowboys error inside their own half.
NSW Origin halfback Trent Hodkinson added the conversion from the sideline to put his team 6-0 ahead.
Clearly dominating field position, the Bulldogs went close to adding to their lead on 20 minutes.
Tim Lafai looked to have got the better of Tautau Moga but the Cowboys centre did well to tackle him short of the line and force the ball loose.
NQ only had six sets of possession to the Dogs’ 13 in the opening quarter and when they finally managed to get their share they looked dangerous.
Michael Morgan provided the lead-up work for their first try, shedding a couple of defenders to set up Wright in the 24th minute.
It was the fullback’s eighth try assist in his last six games.
The Cowboys’ No.2 had his second try before the half-hour mark, collecting a pinpoint JT chip over the top to put his team in front.
Thurston curled over the conversion from the sideline to make the difference four, but the visitors had the handicap of battling away with a three-man bench after losing Test and Origin prop James Tamou to a neck problem.
He had his head rocked back in a collision with Ashton Sims as they tackled Dogs prop James Graham.
JT booted a penalty before half time to send his team into the break with a 12-6 lead.
A confident-looking Cowboys outfit played more controlled football after the restart and were rewarded with a 47th minute try to Antonio Winterstein.
A superb pass from JT that travelled behind two dummy runners sent the left winger over for a try in his seventh consecutive match, just two games short of the club record held by Willie Tonga.
The NQ captain piloted the conversion over to give the underdogs a 12-point lead.
It was a repeat set of tackles that led to the try that allowed the Bulldogs back into the contest.
The Cowboys gave away a final-tackle penalty and soon after a Hodkinson pass put Josh Jackson in close to the posts.
With 18 to go, the visitors only led 18-12.
With the Dogs gathering all the positive momentum, the scores would probably have been level had Robert Lui not been able to hold up Lloyd Perrett over the tryline in the 65th minute.
Down the other end, Lui may have been able to cross had he not grassed a pass from Morgan in front of the posts.
There were very few chances for the Cowboys to score after that as the Dogs tried to salvage their situation.
A resolute NQ defensive line held and a fifth tackle penalty conceded by Sam Kasiano, when he pushed Thurston to the ground in the play-the-ball, eventually sunk Canterbury.
The champion halfback guided the penalty shot over from 30 metres out to make the difference eight.
Jason Taumalolo’s 18 hit-ups yielded a match-high 161 metres for the Cowboys, while Ashton Sims (104m) and bench forward John Asiata (103m) also beat the 100-metre mark.
Rory Kostjasyn led the tackle count with 37.
Cowboys: 1 Michael Morgan 2 Matthew Wright 3 Tautau Moga 4 Kane Linnett 5 Antonio Winterstein 6 Robert Lui 7 Johnathan Thurston (c) 8 Ashton Sims 9 Rory Kostjasyn 10 James Tamou 11 Tariq Sims 12 Jason Taumalolo 13 Glenn Hall. Interchange: 14 Ray Thompson 15 Scott Bolton 16 John Asiata 17 Sam Hoare.
Bulldogs: 23 Sam Perrett 2 Corey Thompson 6 Moses Mbye 4 Tim Lafai 1 Mitch Brown 12 Tony Williams 7 Trent Hodkinson 8 Sam Kasiano 9 Michael Ennis (c) 10 James Graham 11 Josh Jackson 13 Greg Eastwood 15 Dale Finucane. Interchange: 14 Reni Maitua 16 Pat O'Hanlon 17 Lloyd Perrett 21 Harlan Alaalatoa.
Cowboys 20 – Matt Wright 2, Antonio Winterstein tries; Johnathan Thurston 4 goals
Bulldogs 12 – Mitch Brown, Josh Jackson tries; Trent Hodkinson 2 goals