Toyota Cowboys winger Javid Bowen scored a hat-trick of tries and won the man-of-the-match medal as the Northern Pride came from behind to beat Penrith in the inaugural NRL State Championship final at ANZ Stadium in Sydney.
Defying their underdog status – bookmakers offered odds as long as $5.75 for the Pride during the week – and a gruelling travel schedule, especially compared to their opponents, the Intrust Super Cup champions won 32-28 to complete a season to remember.
The Cairns-based club were 12 points down early in the second half, but scored the last three tries of the match, only taking the lead for the final time with eight minutes to go.
Bowen was one of six contracted Cowboys in the Pride lineup, joining Ethan Lowe, Ricky Thorby, Hezron Murgha, Ben Spina and Patrick Kaufusi.
Starting impressively in their highest-profile game yet, the Pride dominated possession and territory in the opening 10 minutes and were rewarded with a try to Blake Leary off a Shaun Nona grubber-kick into the in-goal.
Davin Crampton, into the side to replace the unavailable Kyle Feldt, came within centimetres of scoring another when he was denied by a last-gasp Luke Capewell tackle as he was about to force the football.
That miss was forgotten, however, when left winger Javid Bowen won the race to another Nona short kick to hand the Pride a well-deserved 8-0 lead by the quarter-hour mark.
Penrith’s hit back came not long after – Kevin Naiqama somehow avoiding being put over the sideline by two Pride defenders before setting up Capewell who finished off a move that started inside Panther territory.
The NSW Cup champions’ second try also came down their left.
Eto Nabuli managed to find the line after a smart interchange of passes on the final tackle to put his team up by four following Wes Naiqama’s sideline conversion.
It was a one-on-one strip by Nona that turned the momentum back the Pride’s way.
After robbing the Panthers’ Kieran Moss of the ball 30 metres out, the five-eighth was able to find Bowen lurking nearby and the Cowboys winger used his pace to finish off a first-half double.
Nona’s first conversion of the afternoon, from in front of the posts, put the Pride 14-12 ahead.
Despite having just 45% of the possession in the opening 40, the Panthers looked like they would take a two-point advantage into half time thanks to impressive young centre Waqa Blake who capped off a well-executed raid to the right to score in the corner.
However, a Nona penalty goal after the half-time left scores locked at 16-all.
A try out of dummy-half from close to the line by bench hooker Kierran Moseley put Penrith back in front four minutes after the restart and there was another setback for the Pride when they lost Patrick Kaufusi to the concussion rule following a massive head clash with teammate Ryan Ghietti.
With all the momentum, the Panthers kicked 12 clear when Moss was on hand to finish off a break by Tom Humble in the 52nd minute.
The Pride’s next try – to winger Semi Tadulala – was the third to be overturned by the video refs after being ruled “no try” on the field.
The ageless Fijian did a great job to get the ball down just inside the sideline after taking a superb pass from Cowboys forward Ethan Lowe.
Pride coach Jason Demetriou was out of his chair punching the air when the Pride went back-to-back to close to within two points with 17 to go.
Javid Bowen not only collected the scraps from a Sam Obst bomb to finish off his hat-trick, he curled over the conversion from the sideline, Johnathan Thurston-style.
Hezron Murgha came up with a try-saver on a runaway Blake to keep the Pride in touch and then saw his team go back in front with what turned out to be the match-winner via second-rower Tyrone McCarthy, off a Jason Roos pass, with eight to go.
The Queensland champs had been put deep into attack after Kevin Naiqama couldn’t pouch a Nona high ball.
Penrith’s error count ended up killing off their late shot at glory with the final finishing with the Panthers throwing a wayward pass over the sideline.