A disappointed Johnathan Thurston said the Cowboys’ poor start was what allowed the Roosters to bust his premiership dream on Friday night – not another controversial refereeing call.
Down 31-30 as they entered Tricolours territory, the North Queensland skipper was denied what would’ve been a match-winning try – and the greatest comeback in rugby league history – in the 78th minute when team-mate Robert Lui was ruled to have knocked-on in the lead-up.
But instead of claiming another Sydney conspiracy, Thurston instead blamed their cruel finish to a nightmare start that had the stunned Cowboys side staring at a 30-0 deficit by the half-hour mark.
“Look, the start to the game is what’s tough to comprehend. 30-0 after 30 minutes, [it’s] pretty tough to climb back. But [I’m] extremely proud of the way the boys dug in deep. We just weren’t good enough in the end,” he said.
Coach Paul Green also wasn’t drawn on the dramatic finish – which also included Roosters fullback Anthony Minichiello colliding with referee Shayne Hayne as Thurston raced away – and said his team simply didn’t start well enough.
“Whether it’s right or wrong, it comes down to the start of the game,” he said. “We didn’t start well enough. You can’t give a quality side like the Roosters that kind of head start. But we showed enormous character and ticker to make a game of it and get ourselves back.”
The contentious decision instantly revived memories of their ill-fated finals finishes of the past two years, but Thurston said his team had more than enough chances to seal what would’ve been one of the greatest finals games ever.
“You can talk about those calls or whatever but at the end of the day, it comes down to the way we started,” he said.
“It was a massive learning curve for the squad. We put ourselves in a position to win that game but weren’t good enough in the end. The middle of that second half, some of our fifth tackle options put us under the pump and gave them great field position. They made us pay there.
“And also, I made that break through the middle third and could only see outside support. I couldn’t see ‘Morgo’ [fullback Michael Morgan] on the inside and in the end it was too late. So I rolled it dead which gave them seven tackles.”
The 13-year pro also regretted his decision to reject a shot at goal in the final minute of the first half in search of a third straight try.
“Probably should’ve taken the two points before halftime when we got that penalty. We had the momentum there. So, in hindsight that was probably the way to go,” he said.
“We had a lot of momentum towards the back end of that first half and we continued that in the second half. That’s probably the one that I was spewing about a bit.”
Green, who did a remarkable job guiding the Cowboys this far into September in just his rookie season, hoped his playing group would learn the tough lessons from their heartbreaking defeat.
“We can talk about penalties and we can talk about those calls, but the bottom line is you’ve got to take those decisions out of the result. And whilst it’s disappointing, it’s pretty tough to cop losing the way we lost,” he said.
“But at the end of the day, we need to grow and learn from it. As I said, we’ve come a long way as a team and as a club this year. I was pretty strong on that point. We had an opportunity earlier in the year in that Manly game where we would’ve sounded like the same old Cowboys. But as a group, I’ve been pretty strong on that’s not who we are.
“Tonight, we showed what we can do when we put it together. Blaming other people or ref calls or anything like that is not going to do us good in the long-term.
“This is really tough to cop as a group. And all the boys in the group are really, really hurting in there. JT’s no different. You mentioned how he’s not as bad… everyone’s burning about this.
“We’ll use that. We’ll remember this feeling, how we feel tonight, and grow from it as a group and as a club and do everything we can to make sure that we don’t ever feel like this again.”