The chase for back-to-back NRL Auckland Nines titles remains alive for the Toyota Cowboys after they eliminated Penrith in their final pool match at Eden Park.
South Sydney did North Queensland 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 titleholders 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.
They will face Parramatta in the first quarter-final, while South Sydney will take on Newcastle.
Ben Spina and rookie Coen Hess both played their first minutes of the weekend, coming on after NQ’s early points rush.
Coach Paul Green rested Ethan Lowe, Zac Santo, Kelepi Tanginoa and John Asiata.