The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys will host the Brisbane Broncos in a blockbuster Townsville knockout semi-final next Friday after being outmuscled by the Melbourne Storm 16-10 at AAMI Park in a gripping qualifying final tonight.
It was two tries apiece but Cameron Smith’s three penalty goals proved decisive as continued pressure and some North Queensland frustration combined to hand the minor premiers a saloon passage to week three of the National Rugby League finals series.
For the first 30 minutes of this pulsating qualifying final, both teams were locked in a tryless slugfest of the highest quality, with the combatants trading repeat sets while proudly and desperately defending their tryline.
First it was the Cowboys under the pump, the visitors repelling wave after wave of disciplined attack, with the team’s backline chasing the Storm’s giant wingers all half.
Likewise, the Storm defended manfully when called upon, and at one stage they successfully fended off four repeat sets as Thurston’s pinpoint short kicking games gave the Cowboys repeated chances.
Having withheld a Cowboys barrage, the Storm – who earlier scored the first points of the match with a penalty – struck on the 30th minute against the run of play.
Perhaps frustrated by being unable to pry apart their opposition, the Cowboys got a little tangled up on a last play.
The ball went to ground and try-scoring freak Suliasi Vunivalu swooped on the pill and raced away to salute at the half-hour mark.
The Cowboys continued to press and on the stroke of half time, a little luck – and plenty of Lachlan Coote skill – was the order of the night as winger Antonio Winterstein scored out wide.
A deflected Cowboys kick was brilliantly fielded by Coote who found an unmarked Winterstein, the veteran touching down for the 12th time in 2016.
After a tense first 40, the theme continued and again it was the visitors who blinked first.
Another error led to Melbourne getting good ball and prop Jesse Bromwich needed no second invitation, barging over in the 53rd minute for a 14-6 lead after Smith earlier slotted a second penalty.
Showing great resolve, the Cowboys again responded with a trademark backline move ending with winger Kyle Feldt also dotting down for his 12th of the year, the two Cowboys flankers in an intriguing duel for bragging rights at season’s end.
The visitors tried their darndest to breach the Storm’s defence a third time but it proved a bridge too far as the defending premiers will again have to get to the NRL grand final the long way after losing the opening match of the finals series.
MELBOURNE STORM 16 (Suliasi Vunivalu, Jesse Bromwich tries; Cameron Smith goal, 3 pen. goals) def NORTH QUEENSLAND TOYOTA COWBOYS 10 (Antonio Winterstein, Kyle Feldt tries; Johnathan Thurston goal) at AAMI Park. Crowd: 21,233.