Despite some shaky moments, the Cowboys have lived up to their pre-game billing, finally ending the Brisbane Broncos’ season following a 32-20 victory in front of 25,120 delirious fans on Saturday night.
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Nervous wait on Sims and Feldt
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WATCH: Morgan seals the win
WATCH: Full match highlights
WATCH: Cowboys press conference
WATCH: Broncos press conference
Match stats, scores, highlights
As it happened: Relive NRL.com's live match blog
This means North Queensland will now face minor premiers and coach Paul Green’s former team the Sydney Roosters after Penrith sprung an upset in the earlier qualifying final.
Robert Lui arguably out-shone Johnathan Thurston in a dominant performance, repaying the Cowboys’ faith to hand him a one-year deal.
Lui was backed up by – as usual – stoic props Matt Scott (139 metres) and Ashton Sims (117), who laid the platform in a dominant first half.
Trailing 24-0 at the break, Brisbane came out of the sheds a different team. Sparked by strong runs from Sam Thaiday, they would register 14 consecutive points to peg the margin back to 10, before fullback revelation Michael Morgan had the score reading 30-14, all but sealing the deal with 15 minutes left.
Prop Martin Kennedy would go down early in the second stanza with a torn calf, confirmed by Brisbane medical staff, but soon after Barba would score his side’s first try in broken play and open the floodgates, followed by a much-needed confidence booster to Jordan Kahu two minutes later.
The points kept flowing and it had the North Queenslanders noticeably rattled. Hodges would put on a trademark right foot step to get on the outside of Kyle Feldt and put away a lightning-quick Kahu down the left touchline, but the errant boot of Corey Parker (1/3 during that stretch) would prove to hurt the visitors.
After the Morgan try, Brisbane were hoping for a miracle when Vidot crossed in the 72nd minute, but the Cowboys’ defence did just enough to hold out a Brisbane side who thoroughly out-played their more fancied opponents in the second 40. Before that, Thurston would put the icing on the cake, taking the two after Ben Hannant was placed on report.
If the Broncos wanted to take the crowd out of the contest early they went the wrong way about it, with sloppy fifth-tackle options and errant penalties marching the Cowboys into the Broncos’ red zone within the first few minutes.
Unlike the game between the Roosters and Panthers earlier this evening where it took 25 minutes to register points, the already excitable crowd thought they had even more to cheer about when Feldt looked to have crossed in the corner.
But Tautau Moga was ruled to have fumbled the ball into the tackling Justin Hodges while attempting to score, before the ball spilled out to Morgan who got it on to Feldt.
The Broncos hadn’t learnt their lesson, however, giving away a penalty for being inside the 10 metres while the Cowboys were working it out of their end, and Lui capitalised five tackles later by forcing another set, which produced points, but not before North Queensland played with some fire of their own.
Momentum could have been totally lost for the home side when Lui threw a boot out to stop the rolling dropout but missed, leaving front-rower Ashton Sims to pick up the pieces in the backfield, going centimetres away from bringing it to the turf.
But they rolled up the field with ease, and Gavin Cooper found his way over, selling a perfect dummy to crash over.
Off the restart Parker would not account for the slight breeze, sailing it dead over the head of Scott, which would end in more points for the home side after the penalty.
Opting to attack the line on the last tackle, Thurston cut out a dummy-running Morgan to give Linnett the easiest of tasks on the left, and just like that the within the space of four minutes, the Cowboys had racked up a dozen.
Despite an uncharacteristic error from Scott (two handling errors all season before kick-off), both he and front-row foil Ashton Sims would rack up double-digit hitups on their way to over 180 combined first-half metres.
Meanwhile Hodges was having another first half reminiscent of last week’s effort against the Storm. Failing to capitalise on field position he sent a grubber kick dead in goal, and the very next play down the other end a lackadaisical play-the-ball handed the Cowboys a full set to attack the Broncos’ line.
Proving to be a star of the first 40, Lui scored running on the fifth tackle yet again. The five-eighth would first look to grubber, but the ball was stopped at the feet of a rushing-up Ben Barba. Lui was first to react, however, and powered through Alex Glenn and Hodges to score under the sticks.
Parker again played Russian roulette with the dead-ball line, but this time it was Morgan fumbling it dead which gave the visitors their first real sniff, which they failed to convert through more disjointed attack and poor fifth-tackle options.
The next 10 minutes were owned by the Broncos on the back of silly Cowboys penalties as Brisbane came out of their backfield, but again blew opportunities with knock-ons to Kahu, who looked to be over-awed by the moment.
Cooper bagged his second of the night in the dying stages off another brilliant Lui face-ball, followed by a melee started by a frustrated Ben Hunt drawing most of the 26 men on the field. The Broncos fought gallantly throughout the 80, but the 24-0 halftime scoreline proved too much to recover from.
Cowboys 32 (Cooper 2, Linnett, Lui, Morgan tries; Thurston 6 goals) defeated Broncos 20 (Kahu 2, Barba, Vidot tries; Parker 2 goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Crowd: 25,120. On report: Ben Hannant (Broncos), Tariq Sims (Cowboys).