The North Queensland Toyota Cowboys have stumbled in their valiant attempt to effect one of the great NRL boilovers, falling 28-22 to the ladder-leading Dragons at WIN Stadium tonight.
Down 28-4 at half time and playing error-riddled rugby league not seen for years, the Cowboys were all but gone at the hands of a ruthless Dragons outfit.
But an inspired comeback led by five-eighth Michael Morgan and makeshift halves partner John Asiata fell agonisingly short as the Cowboys' three unanswered second-half tries got them to within a converted try of victory.
The Cowboys - so long a consistent force in the NRL and still firmly in the top eight in 2017 - went into the game with rare underdog status on account of the Dragons' white-hot form and a significant injury toll of their own.
The visitors held the fort well for several minutes, but the Dragons' consistent and relentless pressure proved too much when in the 10th minute, dangerous winger Nene MacDonald showed amazing hands to field a loose pass and dive over.
THE HIT BACK
To their credit, the Cowboys rallied soon after the MacDonald try, with accidental hooker Blake Leary - drafted into the team two weeks ago from the Townsville Blackhawks - floated in a neat grubber behind the line, allowing young winger Gideon Gela-Mosby to pounce.
The scores were 4-4, with Gela-Mosby now three tries from four NRL games, the gifted flyer adapting well to life at the top level.
IT DIDN'T LAST LONG THOUGH
Cruelled by a woeful 31% first-half completion rate and hurt by a relentless Dragons march forward, the visitors leaked tries in the 21st, 26th, 33rd and 37th minutes as Tim Lafai (2), Kurt Mann and Gareth Widdop shredded their opposition.
The 28-4 margin was a true reflection of the gulf in the sides - the disparate completion rates (the Dragons were at 80%); the eight line breaks to one; 24-12 missed tackles - and the Cowboys faced a mountain in the second forty.
GOOD EARLY SIGNS
The Cowboys came out in the second half with a ton more intent, and actually scored the first try courtesy of veteran forward Ben Spina, who dived on a Michael Morgan grubber to reduce the margin to three converted tries.
It was Spina's second ever try in his ninth NRL game, and a nice reward for the three years' hard graft the Queensland Cup veteran has put in at the club.
BUT WAIT, THERE'S MORE
Buoyed by some more possession, the Cowboys looked nothing like the side that bumbled its way through the first half as Scott Bolton, then Michael Morgan added tries to reduce the margin to six points with plenty of time on the clock.
ST GEORGE ILLAWARRA DRAGONS 28 (Tim Lafai 2, Gareth Widdop, Kurt Mann, Nen MacDonald tries; Widdop 2 goals, 2 pen. goals) def NORTH QUEENSLAND TOYOYA COWBOYS 22 (Gideon Gela-Mosby, Ben Spina, Scott Bolton, Michael Morgan tries; Kyle Feldt 3 goals) at WIN Stadium.