The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys have qualified for their second ever grand final in their proud 20-year history with a rousing 32-12 preliminary final win over the Melbourne Storm at AAMI Park tonight.
The Cowboys’ brilliant triumph has secured them a mouth-watering National Rugby League grand final clash against Queensland rivals the Brisbane Broncos in the first wholly non-New South Wales-based decider since the Broncos beat the Storm in 2007.
It has been a decade since the Cowboys played in their one and only grand final, that 2005 decider ending in a heartbreaking loss to Wests Tigers.
But the team now has a glorious shot at redemption and will play in their second ever finals match in their 20th year against the Broncos at ANZ Stadium next Sunday.
In front of a packed AAMI park crowd of 29,815, things got off to a disastrous start for the visitors as firstly they had a no-try decision upheld by the video ref in the sixth minute as Antonio Winterstein touched down. An illegal decoy run was ruled but that disappointment turned to misery minutes later as Storm halfback Cooper Cronk scythed over following a strong forward-running set from the Storm.
But the Cowboys, who looked sharp with ball in hand from the opening set were not to be denied a second time as classy centre Justin O’Neill grounded a pinpoint Thurston grubber to post to the opening salvo in his first-half double.
His second, in the 21st minutes, would again come courtesy of Thurston, who laid on a pearler of a pass as the Cowboys took the lead 10-6.
The Cowboys nearly went over a third time were it not for a Cameron Munster spoil of a Scott Bolton put-down.
More heartache was to come for NQ, in the 31st minute and on the back of three straight penalties against them, backrower Tohu Harris barged over for a 10-10 scoreline, turned into 12-10 to the Storm as the unflappable Cam Smith waited out a seagull sitting in his eyeline to add the extras.
But despite comically coming to Smith’s aide to shoo the seagull away, it was that man Thurston who would have the last laugh as his crossfield kick rebounded favourably for backrower Gavin Cooper to slide over in the corner in the 39th minute, a 14-12 lead turned into 16-12 with a successful sideline conversion.
The second half was a thrilling arm wrestle in the opening 10 minutes with the high-octane exchange of set running abated until the Cowboys conceded a penalty with half and hour left on the clock. That result in a repeat Storm set by the Cowboys’ defence hung tough to repel consecutive Storm raids.
That deadlock was broken in explosive fashion as Michael Morgan crossed on the end of some scrambling play, but it was an off-the-ball punch by Storm winger Marika Koroibete on his opposite Kyle Feldt that caused a stir. Koroibete was sent for 10 minutes and the Cowboys had the ascendancy.
Morgo then added a second four minutes later as a Ben Hannant charge-down led to a Cooper regather to a flying Morgan. Thurston added the extras and the Cowboys were in full control.
More drama erupted in the 63rd minute as a Ryan Hinchliffe tackle on James Tamou ended in Tamou leaving the field injured and a penalty awarded against the Storm.
The Cowboys controlled the tempo of the match for the remainder on the back of smart field position and marched to their grand final date with Brisbane and an all-Queensland grand final.
A final try to Cooper of another JT inside ball sealed the glorious result.
NORTH QUEENSLAND TOYOTA COWBOYS 32 (Justin O’Neill 2, Michael Morgan 2, Gavin Cooper 2 tries; Johnathan Thurston 4 goals) def MELBOURNE STORM 12 (Cooper Cronk try; Cameron Smith goal) at AAMI Park. Crowd: 29,815.