The Toyota Cowboys’ defence of their NRL Auckland Nines title came to an end at the quarter-final stage at Eden Park today when they were beaten in the final minute by Parramatta.
Eels five-eighth Corey Norman found his way through North Queensland’s defence close to the line to break an 11-all scoreline with 53 seconds left and Reece Robinson’s conversion boosted the winning margin to six.
The only Queensland team to make the final eight, the Cowboys shot 7-0 clear thanks to a bonus-point try from hooker Jake Granville who took a smart pass from Robert Lui and showed his pace off the mark to scamper to the five-point zone.
However, the Eels hit back with a bonus point try of their own with Norman scooping up a Sandow kick ahead to touch down.
It took until five minutes of the second half for the next points to arrive, the Eels turning what looked like being a nothing set into points when a Norman cross-field kick was swooped on by Bureta Faraimo out wide.
The Cowboys weren’t done and caught the Eels defence short on their right, allowing Justin O'Neill to run around to score his fourth try of the weekend and level up at 11-all.
Lui’s dropkick conversion attempt to give his team the lead with two minutes to go missed well to the right and when North Queensland’s kick off went out on the full, it gave the Eels good field position to hit back.
The Cowboys defence looked solid until Norman beat Lui with a jink a few metres out.
The Cowboys had one final chance as the final siren sounded but the Eels’ Luke Kelly won the foot race to a chip ahead from North Queensland and sent the ball sailing out past the dead ball line as his side celebrated a semi-finals berth.
Earlier on day two, South Sydney did the titleholders a favour by beating Melbourne 24-4 in the first of two matches to finish off the group, leaving the Cowboys needing only to avoid losing by 13 points or more to the Panthers to reach the top eight.
Early tries to Kyle Feldt and Jason Taumalolo gave the Cowboys a 10-0 lead, putting both the winless Panthers and Melbourne virtually out of business with more than a half of football remaining.
Feldt went perilously close to stepping on the deadball line before getting the ball down for the first try while Taumalolo produced a trademark blockbusting run from 10 metres out for his first four-pointer of the tournament.
Both of the Panthers’ tries came from kicks out wide, reducing the margin to two points, before Tautau Moga crashed over with four minutes left to seal the Cowboys’ second victory of the group stage.
Ben Spina and rookie Coen Hess both played their first minutes of the weekend, coming on after NQ’s early points rush.
Hess also played in the quarter-final, while Ethan Lowe, Kelepi Tanginoa and Zac Santo were unused on day two.
Cowboys 14 (K Feldt, J Taumololo, T Moga tries; R Lui 1/2, M Wright 0/1 goals) def. Panthers 8 (J Jay, C Smith tries; A Davis 1/2 goals)
Eels 17 (Norman bonus try; Faraimo and Norman tries; C Sandow 1/2 goals, R Robinson 1/1 goal) def. Cowboys 11 (Granville bonus try; O’Neill try; Morgan 1/1 goals, Lui 0/1 goals)