The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys will almost certainly enter the National Rugby League finals in third place after a resolute Melbourne Storm shut them out 14-6 at AAMI Park tonight.
The Cowboys needed to win the Round 25 clash after wins to the Roosters and the Broncos shot them out to 38 competition points in the race for the minor premiership.
The Cowboys are stuck on 36 points and no hope of reeling in the frontrunners – due to a far inferior for-and-against - even if they beat the Titans in Round 26 and Brisbane and Sydney lose their final regular season matches.
Tonight’s match saw the Storm dominate possession (54% to 46%) and enjoyed the flow of penalties (7-4, including receiving seven in a row at one stage), but they adapted to the conditions better, with Cooper Cronk and Cameron Smith pulling all the strings in masterful, controlled displays.
Playing in wet, greasy and bone-numbingly cold conditions, both sides traded opening salvos chiefly in the middle 60m zone of the field.
Seven penalties were blown inside the opening 17 minutes – the first three against the Storm and the last four against the visitors – added to the stop-start nature of a game that was never going to be free-flowing due to the wet, cold, slippery conditions.
The first six of these were relatively inconsequential, but the seventh, awarded against Jake Granville for a lifting tackle, led directly to the first points as Storm skipper Smith coolly slotted the penalty and a 2-0 Storm led.
The Storm continued to apply pressure by forcing two goal-line dropouts in quick successions, but an error by centre Will Chambers in attempting to field the second of these handed the Cowboys possession against the run of play.
That reprieve, though, was painfully short-lived after Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt in turn spilled the ball in an innocuous carry, allowing the Storm to set up camp within the Cowboys’ 30m zone. In the ensuing play, Smith found a rampaging Kenny Bromwich, who slid over under the crossbar and it was quickly 8-0 with minutes left in the half.
Eight to nil could nearly have been 12-0 were it not for some sublime Lachlan Coote defence on Matt Duffie in the corner.
The Cowboys had a second close call seconds later as the Storm came within millimetres of grounding a loose ball in the in-goal.
Melbourne continued to apply the blowtorch as the first half closed down, as Smith and halfback Cooper Cronk used smart kicks to pin the visitors deep within their territory.
The Cowboys were then denied what would have been an unbelievable length-of-the field try, which ended in Kyle Feldt crossing, but was disallowed for an obstruction on Cronk earlier in the passage.
The Cowboys defended desperately in the closing stages and did well to be down 8-0 going into the sheds.
Things couldn’t have gotten off to a worse start for the Cowboys in the second half. Utility Rory Kostjasyn left the field with a head knock in the opening two minutes. He would not return to the field, but NQ had a bigger headache two minutes later as centre Will Chamber dived on a loose ball after Johnathan Thurston fumbled it in-goal. Smith converted and the Cowboys were in the hole 14-0 with 35 minutes remaining.
A Blake Green 40-20 moments later compounded the Cowboys’ woes, but the Storm quickly gifted possession back with an error of their own.
Try as they might after that point, the Cowboys simply couldn’t find a way over the line as the Storm continue to repel their opposition’s attack with a uniform defensive line and scrambling efforts.
Their only try came in the 78th minute as Kyle Feldt latched on to a Johnathan Thurston cross-field kick.
MELBOURNE STORM 14 (Kenny Bromwich, Will Chambers tries; Cameron Smith 2 goals, pen. goal) def NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS 6 (Kyle Feldt try; Johnathan Thurston goals) at AAMI Park. Crowd: 15,214.