North Queensland have put on a season-best performance in co-captain Johnathan Thurston’s 200th game for the club, dispatching the Sydney Roosters 30-6 in front of more than 15,000 Townsville fans Saturday night.
The game was run and won in a first half romp that saw the home side dominate 60 per cent of possession, complete at 90 per cent and run over 350 more metres than the stunned defending premiers.
The contest was not without its Origin implications when Boyd Cordner and Brent Tate collided in the 32nd minute, resulting in the NSW back-rower limping off with suspected syndesmosis injury which could rule him out of the start of the series.
The world’s biggest five-eighth Sonny Bill Williams had a night to forget, embarrassed multiple times on defence by the crafty Thurston and never making an impact on attack, registering just 45 run metres.
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From the very first set it was a Cowboys kind of night when a spiralling Robert Lui bomb was allowed to bounce by Roosters winger Daniel Tupou, finding the hands of Rory Kostjasyn, who hit Kane Linnett. The centre, who went on to notch the first NRL hat-trick of his career, was all but held up by a scrambling Anthony Minichiello but would not be denied the opening try.
The Roosters got their crack minutes later with four straight sets on the back of Cowboy errors and penalties, but Cordner was penalised for obstruction.
From then it was all Cowboys, and again off a kick. Failing to learn for the first try, James Maloney and Tupou again forgot they were playing with an oval ball, letting a Thurston clearing kick bounce twice before being collected by a storming Tariq Sims - whose two-metre swan dive to score was just as impressive as his kick chase.
Everything was clicking for the home side when Kostjasyn darted out of dummy-half to find his captain, who got one up on his five-eighth counterpart, beating him with a left foot step to facilitate Linnett’s second.
The energy was also present in the North Queensland defence through recalled halfback Lui, who put a try-saver on a flying Minichiello.
Criticised for his defence earlier in the season by coach Paul Green, Lui put on four outstanding ball-and-all tackles throughout the game – saving one try and forcing two repeat sets in the second half.
But just as the Cowboys were looking to run away with it, Minichiello crossed in the corner, benefitting from a double cut-out pass from lock forward Aidan Guerra.
Learning their lesson from last week’s Brisbane comeback, the Cowboys muscled up to halt Sydney’s scoring run at six, while building further momentum of their own.
More Kostjasyn dash from dummy-half had the Cowboys forcing a Jake Friend ruck penalty, which Thurston duly converted to push the margin back to three possessions at 20-6.
It was on again with the half-time whistle looming, with a miraculous try to milestone man Thurston.
A right-side shift was interrupted by an errant Rooster hand, but after a lucky offload from Brent Tate the ball found the ground only to be picked up by a crawling Thurston in the corner.
Yet the Cowboys weren't done. In the dying seconds of the opening term the ball again went right on a run-around from Thurston, striking a Roosters hand and falling on to the heel of the champion playmaker, before bouncing up for Tate to bat it on to winger Matthew Wright to score in the corner.
Just to prove he can do absolutely everything on a rugby league field, Thurston replaced his trademark hook with a brilliant slice for the conversion and slid it between the uprights.
The second half failed to reach any miraculous heights, with just three tries and a variety of serious injury concerns. Cowboys back-rower Gavin Cooper was taken off in the medicab in the 53rd minute with a suspected dislocated hip, while interchange hooker Cameron King went off in agony in the final 10 minutes with a potentially serious knee injury.
Linnett bundled over for his hat-trick with just nine minutes remaining and was delighted with his first treble - which came against his former club.
A late consolation try to Daniel Mortimer salvaged a speck of respect for the visitors but it was all Cowboys on a stellar night for co-captain Thurston and his club.
North Queensland Cowboys 42 (Linnett 3, T. Sims, Thurston, Wright, Tate tries; Thurston 7 goals) defeated Sydney Roosters 10 (Minichiello, Mortimer tries; Maloney goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Crowd: 15,361