North Queensland captain Johnathan Thurston admits the refereeing blunders that robbed his team of premiership tilts the past two seasons "still hurt", but is confident this year's upcoming finals series will be one of the best ever.
Two years ago it was a missed knock-on by Manly five-eighth Kieran Foran in the lead-up to a Sea Eagles try that controversially fleeced the Cowboys of a preliminary final.
And then in the opening week of the finals last year, an irate Thurston famously accused the NRL of a Sydney conspiracy after a seventh-tackle try to Cronulla handed North Queensland another early exit in September.
But after a weekend where the game's officiating has again come under the glaring spotlight, the incumbent Kangaroos five-eighth jumped to the defence of the referees, and even said they had reason to believe they were in for one of the best finals series in recent memory.
"I make errors out there too, you know?" Thurston told reporters from the Cowboys' week-long camp in Cronulla.
"They're doing their best as well. The ladder's that congested, it's so hard to win football games. We've seen refereeing decisions cost you two points throughout the year.
"[But] I've got confidence that hopefully this will be one of the best finals campaigns that we can play, that we can be a part of. Hopefully we're talking about the footy and not the refereeing decisions."
With his side on the cusp of what would be their fourth straight finals appearance, Thurston said the pain of the two refereeing blunders in the past two seasons – particularly the seven-tackle call – still resonated in him today.
"It still hurts. It wasn't a great way to finish or end your season," he said. "But as much as it hurts, we were in situations there where we could've won those games and we just weren't good enough.
"Manly at the start of the year with the obstruction rule – that's another instance as well. It is frustrating, but there's nothing you can do about it. You've just got to try and put yourself in a position where the referees don't make those mistakes."
The 13-year pro empathised with the Eels, whose season goes on the line this week following their dramatic no-try in a loss to the Bulldogs last week when a ballboy failed to put the ball on the sideline after a 40-20.
But Thurston also defended the whistle-blowers, who are often overlooked each time a game goes by without a refereeing bungle.
"I can see why fans and players and coaching staff do get frustrated but then again, do we praise the referees when they're doing a great job?" he said.
"When they make a mistake, they make a mistake. Let's move on. There's nothing we can do about it now. It's in the past."
Thurston, 31, said his team needed to move on from the pain of last year's failed campaigns and heed the lessons from them.
"We can talk about the refs and that, but there were games last year we should have put away and we lost and we probably wouldn't have been in that position," he said.
"In semi-finals, everyone's hot under the collar, including referees, and obviously the players as well. In both instances we had opportunities to win those games and put them to the sword and we just weren't good enough. The referee decisions cruelled us but I can't sit here and blame them for it."