The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys’ dream of back-to-back premierships is still alive with a gallant and stunning 26-20 come-from-behind extra-time win against Queensland foes the Brisbane Broncos at 1300SMILES Stadium tonight.
Down 14-6 at half time – and 20-18 with three minutes remaining – a steely second half, some Justin O’Neill magic and a late Johnathan Thurston penalty helped secure the week 2 finals win and book a date with the Cronulla Sharks in next weekend’s grand final qualifier.
O’Neill was twice on the end of some sublime right-side play – his second a display of sheer power and pace – combining with five-eighth Michael Morgan on both occasions to bridge the margin and then get the go-ahead score.
But the Broncos would hit back late, with the Cowboys needing a late penalty to level the scores and send the game into extra-time – five minutes play each way instead of the usual golden point.
It was Thurston who produced the go-ahead try in extra-time, slicing through and offering a flick pass to halves partner Michael Morgan.
It was the first time in four meetings between the sides where the margin was more than one point after last year’s epic 17-16 grand final and close-run games between the sides this year – 19-18 to Brisbane and 21-20 to the Cowboys.
DREAM START/HORROR START
Short of scoring a try, the Cowboys couldn’t have asked for a better start to the match.
After defending stoutly for the opening set, the Cowboys were gifted the ball in good field position after the Broncos’ attempt at a 40-20 kick went out on the full.
The Cowboys were unable to find the early score, and Brisbane marched back down the field, their cause aided by an early penalty after Jason Taumalolo went high on Adam Blair.
The infringement proved extra costly as just tackles later, Broncos hooker Andrew McCullough stormed over the line in the fourth minute, with Jordan Kahu adding the extras.
The Cowboys almost gifted the Broncos a second early try as a risky Lachlan Coote pass in the home team’s red zone was nearly intercepted.
It was ruled forward and the Broncos had another set in prime attacking position.
The raid was stifled and the Cowboys narrowly escaped a double blow.
But more ill-discipline from the reigning NRL premiers proved costly moments later, as a Coen Hess penalty gifted Kahu the two points and the southern Queenslanders led 8-0 after eight minutes.
In one of the most highly anticipated debuts in recent history, 18-year-old Cowboys flyer Kalyn Ponga was thrust into the spotlight after veteran winger Antonio Winterstein was a late withdrawal with a rib complaint.
Ponga, recently named in the National Youth Competition’s Team of the Year, carried the ball strongly on a kick return for his first touch in the NRL.
But it was his second touch that had the packed house at 1300SMILES Stadium in raptures.
Taking a beautiful cutout pass from Lachlan Coote, Ponga screamed down the left side then jinked back infield, using his trademark footwork to bamboozle the Broncos defence before being tackled metres from the try line.
The run was judged an obstruction, but the Mackay product showed plenty of initial class at this level.
But while Ponga was dazzling them down the left, giant winger Kyle Feldt was just as exciting on the right.
Feldt made a clean line break deep inside his own territory, and skilfully linked with centre Justin O’Neill who in turn produced a neat flick pass to find teenage back-row behemoth Coen Hess screaming down the touchline, the blond giant touching down with all the finishing aplomb of a seasoned winger.
Thurston missed the wide conversion, but the Cowboys were well into the game with Hess’s try his fourth of his eight-game NRL career.
The four-pointer was also noteworthy for being just the third Cowboys try – from 101 scored in season 2016 – from long range, or 51-100m out.
Thurston slotted a late first-half penalty to reduce the margin to two points (8-6).
… AND THEN … THIS HAPPENED …
In the shadows of half time though, a second error from Coote proved far more costly than his first.
Defending a screwing, bobbling grubber kick on the Broncos’ last play close to the line, Coote got tangled up, fumbling the attempt to field the ball, which presented centre Jordan Kahu with an easy grounding.
The centre converted his try and the Broncos would take a 14-6 lead into the match.
JUSTIN TIME FOR SOME BRILLIANCE
The Cowboys would get the early second-half wobbles with error in bad position, but rallied to assert their midfield dominance as bench forwards Ben Hannant and Scott Bolton led from the front.
That great play down the middle led to Michael Morgan twice being able to set up centre Justin O’Neill for tries within five minutes of each other.
The Cowboys were now 18-14 with less than 10 minutes remaining.
AGAINST THE RUN OF PLAY
Just as desperate as their hosts, the Broncos would hit back in stunning fashion as Corey Oates caught the Cowboys’ right edge napping with a sublime raid that ended in a try under the posts.
Kahu added the extras and the visitors led 20-18.
THE TRIP HEARD AROUND THE WORLD
Desperately trying to win the match with minutes remaining, the Cowboys were awarded a match-tying penalty after a Broncos player tripped Thurston.
Thurston! That’s all that really needs to be said.
It was the mercurial skipper who produced what would be the match-winning play in the 84th minute, the crafty veteran slicing through the defence and flicking the try assist to halves partner-in-crime Michael Morgan.
Kyle Feldt again came back to haunt the Broncos with his restart forcing a mistake and the Cowboys held on for another epic win between the sides.
NORTH QUEENSLAND TOYOTA COWBOYS 26 (Justin O’Neill 2, Coen Hess, Michael Morgan tries; Johnathan Thurston 3 goals, 2 pen. goals) def BRISBANE BRONCOS 20 (Andrew McCullough, Jordan Kahu, Corey Oates tries; Kahu 3 goals, pen. goal) in extra time at 1300SMILES Stadium.