The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys have survived a mighty effort from an undermanned Leeds Rhinos outfit to claim a maiden World Club Challenge title at Headingley, Leeds.
The Cowboys made good use of a second-half breeze to turn a 4-4 half-time score into a 38-4 win over the English Super League champs, who belied their recent club form – they have dropped their opening two matches of their 2016 campaign – to put on a committed, enthralling display in front of almost 20,000 fevered fans.
Six unanswered tries in the second half proved the difference as NQ ran away with the match despite Leeds offering stiff resistance for sustained periods.
With an early squall subsiding by kick off – making for chilly but good conditions – the Cowboys and the Rhinos traded early sets in the middle of the hallowed Headingley turf as neither side yielded key field position.
By a quarter of an hour into the match, the Cowboys started asserting their authority in defence and attack, with a period of strong tackling down their end paying dividends down the other end several minutes later.
Five-eighth Michael Morgan was the grateful recipient of a neat Johnathan Thurston pass following a strong charge from prop James Tamou.
Morgan scythed over, but Thurston was unable to convert the try and the visitors led 4-0 after 25 minutes.
With the breeze at their backs Leeds quickly worked back into the contest with an opportunistic intercept which led several plays later to halfback Rob Burrow diving over on 32 minutes thanks to a clever offload from ex-Sea Eagles forward Adam Cuthbertson, who set the record for offloads in a Super League season last year.
Leeds failed to convert and a 4-4 score would be taken into the half-time break, thanks in no small part to some desperate Rhinos defence.
Things got off to a horror start for the home side in the second half after an error on the opening set led to rangy centre Kane Linnett crossing for a soft try in the 42nd minute.
Thurston converted with a low, darting effort and the defending NRL champions were 10-4 ahead with plenty of time remaining.
Things got worse for the Rhinos, whose ill discipline in the ruck led indirectly to winger Kyle Feldt scoring in the corner off a classy Michael Morgan cutout pass.
Thurston went wide with the conversion as the North Queenslanders led 14-4.
The Cowboys continued to win field position and in the 61st minute, fullback Lachlan Coote was the beneficiary of a Thurston grubber kick to score the visitors’ fourth try, which Thurston converted.
Less than two minutes later, JT sliced over for his own and all of a sudden the score had blown out to 26-4.
Centre Justin O’Neill then got in on the act with a great solo run to beat several would-be defenders and a clean sweep of Aussie clubs in the WCC was now fait-accompli.
Fireworks then ensued as a fight erupted and James Tamou (yellow card) and his Leeds opposite Mitch Garbutt (red card) were sent from the field after Tamou reacted to some treatment in the tackle.
Garbutt then flattened Tamou with a vicious right to give the end of the match some extra spice in the dying stages.
O’Neill scored his second try in the last moments to complete the second-half rout and the Cowboys left Headingley as world club champions.
Thurston completed a great night by being named winner of the Graham Murray Medal for the best player on the ground, the award named in honour of the former Cowboys and Leeds mentor, who died in 2013.
NORTH QUEENSLAND TOYOTA COWBOYS 38 (Justin O’Neill 2, Michael Morgan, Kane Linnett, Kyle Feldt, Lachlan Coote, Johnathan Thurston tries; Thurston 5 goals) def LEEDS RHINOS 4 (Rob Burrow) at Headingley. Crowd: 19,778.