For 40 minutes the Roosters looked like sending outgoing skipper Craig Fitzgibbon out a winner. They threw the ball around and entertained a small but loud crowd. But for the next 40 minutes they reverted to the form that's seen them rooted to the bottom of the ladder, eventually being flogged by North Queensland on a fine sunny day at the Sydney Football Stadium.
North Queensland played some very fine football and scored 32 unanswered points. They'll be ruing Matt Bowen's injury and season-long inconsistency, else they would not have looked out of place in the finals.
The Roosters were great in the first half, and rubbish in the second.
Overall this was a game with several long-range tries scored by fast, free-running backs.
Cowboys’ fans will be ruing that this form didn't come earlier. Roosters’ fans will be glad this year is over.
The Game Swung When… Two minutes from halftime Willie Mason gave away a penalty in front of the posts. Johnathan Thurston took a quick tap, stepped off his left and scooted over. The Cowboys went to halftime down 16-6.
Just after halftime, the Cowboys scored two fine tries, the second a 60-metre effort begun with a Thurston break, and finished by flying fullback Ty Williams – 18-16 to the Cowboys.
But then, with 15 minutes to go, the true turning of the match: With the Cowboys attacking the Roosters’ line, Thurston threw a long cut-out ball that would have put winger Donald Malone in the corner. Instead, the ball was intercepted by Shaun Kenny-Dowall who had 100 metres of clean open field grass in front of him. But the ball bounced out of Kenny-Dowall's arms and the Roosters had to defend… again.
Shane Tronc bullocked over in the 73rd minute, Tonga scored a fine team try two minutes later, before rookie wing Malone crossed in the corner and the Cowboys had won by 16.
Who Was Hot… Though he scored a try, Thurston had (by his standards) a poor first half; his kicking and passing were just a tad off. But the champion turned it all around in the second stanza, coming up with five (count 'em, five) try assists, four tackle breaks and a line break.
Luke O'Donnell again looked strong and well-suited to the centres (22 tackles), Tonga came up with 17 quality runs and a try, while outside backs Ashley Graham (15 runs, 135 metres) and Williams (10 runs, 108 metres) were fine contributors.
Unsung forwards Tronc, Matthew Scott and Scott Bolton were busy in defence and attack.
The Roosters’ best was Mitchell Pearce whose passing to his outside men was very good, and his kicking spot on. His 40/20 in the first half threatened to break the game open for the Roosters.
Elsewhere James Aubusson's defence in the centres was very good, while Anthony Minichiello and Kenny-Dowall did their best.
And Fitzgibbon did what he’s done since his debut in 1988: tackled hard, ran strongly, worked like a slave. Topped the tackle count with 43.
The quite-hard-to-spell Frank-Paul Nuuausala offloaded four times.
Who Was Not... In the second half, the Roosters dropped the ball as if it was covered in deadly Australian forest scorpions. They gifted the ball to the Cowboys time and again, giving up the pill in great field position.
In the first half they showed what they're capable of. In the second they were totally inept. Very worthy spooners, these Chooks.
Had To Be Seen To Be Believed… At the kick-off, before Fitzgibbon's banner had disintegrated, Ben Jones took the kick-off, ran through the Cowboys and ran 70 metres.
The Roosters’ third try was a cracker. Pearce sent a beautiful flat cut-out ball to Aubusson who straightened, drew his man and sent the impressive Kenny-Dowall away on a flying run down the wing. Fullback to beat, Kenny-Dowall veered inside, was tackled but managed to pass inside to big Willie Mason who crashed over for a great four-pointer. And then the video referee looked at it for 20 minutes – possibly admiring it as much as the crowd did.
Bad Boys… O'Donnell was put on report for his part in a tackle that bent Stanley Waqa like a huge pretzel with muscles. Didn't look good, but the NRL match review committee were prepared to let it slide.
Refs Watch… Steve Lyons and Chris James had pretty good games, but referred almost every try up to video referee Russell Smith who then took longer than the entire Godfather trilogy of movies to decide on each one. Thurston's try, in particular, took an age – and Smith was just ruling on the grounding. He looked at it perhaps seven times, and then sent it back to Lyons anyway. Smithy: you were a top ref. But just get on with it!
NRL.com Best & Fairest… 3 points – Johnathan Thurston (Cowboys): Set up five of the Cowboys’ tries and ran the whole show; 2 points – Willie Tonga (Cowboys): Damaging ball running from the Origin centre; 1 point – Craig Fitzgibbon (Roosters): Wasn't his fault the Roosters leaked tries – he made 43 tackles, 16 more than this next-placed team-mate. Deserved a better send-off.
Cowboys 32 (J Thurston, A Graham, T Williams, S Tronc, W Tonga, D Malone tries; J Thurston 4 goals) def Rooster 16 (S Kenny-Dowall, I Hauraki, W Mason tries; C Fitzgibbon 2 goals) at Sydney Football Stadium. Crowd: 10,277.