DRAGONS winger Brett Morris scored four tries but was outshone by Cowboys skipper Johnathan Thurston who scored three and added four goals to get his side home in a thriller.
Both Morris and Thurston also had further tries denied by referees, making it more than a night to remember for both men.
Just 24 hours after playing a staring role for Australia against New Zealand, Thurston toyed with the under-strength Dragons, doing just enough to ensure his side handed St George Illawarra their third loss of the year.
The visitors were off their usually disciplined game a little, producing more errors than usual (16) and failing to dominate across the ground, something that most teams do better than the Cowboys.
It resulted in a 58 per cent possession rate for the home side and overcoming a differential of that magnitude is never easy in the modern game.
The Dragons were also without Ben Creagh and Beau Scott and had five others backing up from Friday night rep duties.
But on this occasion the North Queensland boys did enough to stay in front and survived a last-minute breakaway to notch just their fourth win of the year, an important victory which keeps them in touch with the top eight.
The Game Swung When… Dragons’ second-rower Matt Prior passed the ball over the sideline in the final minute. There had been a few crucial moments earlier in the match but the last throw of the dice for the Dragons came at the death and it loomed as a genuine try-scoring opportunity until Prior’s execution let him down.
With Morris having just grabbed his fourth try the Dragons entered the final moments just four points in arrears. Ben Hornby strolled through the Cowboys’ right fringe defence from inside his own half. The Dragons’ skipper drew the fullback before passing to Prior who wasn’t going to have the pace to go all the way as the cover converged. With Jason Nightingale looming on the inside and Wendell Sailor on his outside, Prior chose the Big Dell – but his pass missed the mark and sailed forward and over the touchline, putting the nail in the coffin of their challenge.
In Prior’s defence, Sailor had just jagged a little, heading to a better running line, a move Prior didn’t have enough time to adjust to before releasing his pass.
Another crucial moment came in the 71st minute when Thurston had too much pace and went in for his third try to open up an eight-point lead late in proceedings.
Who Was Hot… Obviously Thurston was brilliant and Morris played strongly to earn his four ‘meat pies’. Thurston’s three four-pointers were impressive; the first and last were great individual efforts with his trademark dummy-and-run and he led the team around expertly in between his point-scoring efforts.
Morris ended the day with four tries, three line breaks, five tackle breaks and 222 metres gained. Others to impress were Cowboys’ props Matthew Scott (159 metres, 19 tackles) and Shane Tronc (121 metres, 31 tackles).
Who Was Not… Dragons’ back-rowers Neville Costigan and Matt Prior were off their game on a night they needed to step up.
Costigan missed six tackles and was ineffective on two others while Prior missed four and had three ineffective efforts… plus his last-minute blunder.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… The try of the match has to go to Morris, a little cold comfort perhaps for the Dragons’ flyer.
His 28th-minute 90-metre effort was great to watch. Matt Cooper put a massive shot on Ashley Graham forcing the ball loose and straight into Morris’ arms. The winger set off downfield and gave Matt Bowen a stunning ‘don’t argue’ before showing blistering pace to go the length of the field.
A special mention to Willie Tonga for providing the offload for Thurston’s second try. Tonga looked destined to score himself before Cooper muscled him backwards. But not to be denied the former Test and Origin centre popped the ball to Thurston who grabbed the points.
Injuries… Brett Morris hurt his left calf early but it didn’t stop him playing on and running freely while Darius Boyd had a knee complaint but appeared to run through the pain.
Refs Watch… Ashley Klein and Brett Suttor were noticed thanks to the constant blowing of the whistle. Suttor in particular was hard on the Cowboys and repeatedly warned them of their ill-discipline.
The match had 22 penalties by the end of proceedings, more than the average crowd likes to bear.
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Johnathan Thurston (Cowboys): Three tries, four goals and an all-round dominant attacking performance just 24 hours after tearing apart New Zealand in a Test Match… enough said; 2 points – Brett Morris (Dragons): Four tries and some crucial runs and tackles make this Morris brother another with the potential to be a rep star in the near future; 1 point – Matthew Scott (Cowboys): Just shaded his prop partner, thanks to his impressive output in attack. Scott ensured Thurston had the field position needed to weave his magic.
Cowboys 24 (J Thurston 3, J Tomau tries; J Thurston 4 goals) def Dragons 20 (B Morris 4 tries; J Soward 2 goals) at Dairy Farmers Stadium. Crowd: 16,031.