It was 30-0 to the Roosters, then 30-all, but one of the most amazing comebacks of all time finished with yet another contentious call as the Roosters held on to beat the luckless Cowboys 31-30 in perhaps the most amazing NRL finals match in living memory.
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Match stats, scores, highlights
As it happened: Relive NRL.com's live commentary
The Roosters raced out of the blocks to be up 30-0 after half an hour, before two late tries prior to half time to the Cowboys made it interesting. Three further unanswered tries after the break had Cowboys fans dreaming of a miracle before a Maloney field goal then a contentious no-try ruling against Johnathan Thurston had the Cowboys once again left to rue what could have been.
That no try in the final minute came after a Kyle Feldt offload brushed Robert Lui's hand, looked to go back, then hit the ground before Johnathan Thurston screamed onto it and raced away to score.
Referee Gavin Badger had already blown a knock-on against Lui before the try, meaning it may not have stood anyway, before it was sent upstairs where the video referee elected to agree with the on-field officials that the Lui touch counted as a knock on.
Two very close missed opportunities will hurt the side at least as much as the final no-try ruling. One was a decision not to take a free two points for a penalty just before half time, with the side instead opting to try and cash in on their momentum and earn a third quick try.
The other came at around 65 minutes when Thurston broke into space and with Michael Morgan over his right shoulder he instead grubbered for the corner where the ball beat a racing Antonio Winterstein to the touch-in-goal line with a try that would have put them up 36-30 gone begging.
It would have been the biggest comeback in NRL history – the previous biggest coming from the Cowboys, who beat Penrith from 26-0 down in 1998.
It capped off an amazing night that saw a near-perfect opening from the Roosters before the Thurston-inspired comeback. The Cowboys will be left to lament a number of missed opportunities, including a no-try to Kyle Feldt who only just missed grounding the ball when he beat Rooster Daniel Tupou to a Lui grubber in the first half, and an early attacking grubber that resulted in a length of the field Roosters try.
That runaway try to Pearce came inside the opening three minutes. When Thurston ran the ball on the second-last play – something he made a habit of in a disorganised first half from the Cowboys – Morgan was forced to take the kick with his side in an attacking position.
But showing remarkable reflexes, Pearce snapped up the ball at close range and hit the accelerator, bursting through the line and streaking 95 metres to score.
The Roosters completely reversed their awful handling of the previous week, making just one error in the first half as they utterly dominated possession and field position, and produced set after set of near-perfection, putting the Cowboys under the blowtorch.
That pressure paid dividends again in the 16th minute when a precision Maloney cut-out put lanky winger Daniel Tupou over for his first try, then backed that up with a precision sideline conversion.
A cheeky grubber from Maloney then put the Roosters further ahead when he hit the posts and allowed Michael Jennings to streak through and ground the ball before a desperate but wrong-footed Morgan could get a hand to it.
The Roosters were almost keeping pace with the lock when they went up 24-0 in the 26th minute as Tupou earned a double.
On this occasion Jennings turned provider, charging at the Cowboys right edge, attracting two defenders and producing a deft offload. Tupou showed amazing hands – even better than Pearce in the opening minute – to reach behind him and down around his knees to haul in the tough chance with Lui bearing down on him.
But he pulled the ball and in burst through Lui to race 50 metres to score and put the Cowboys well and truly on the ropes.
The Roosters caught the clock in the 30th minute following a repeat set off the back of an error from Morgan, who spilled a bomb in an unhappy 40 minutes from the fullback. With a full set at the line Maloney pushed his way over from close range.
If the Cowboys were to be any sort of chance they needed to hit back before half time, and Roosters coach Trent Robinson would have been livid with the two late tries his side conceded.
When Minichiello spilled a bomb to allow Ethan Lowe to cross next to the posts then Pearce misread an attacking shift when a Matt Scott short ball put Gavin Cooper over, there would have been just a few flutters in the chook sheds at half time when 30-0 turned into 30-12 in short time, and it was almost worse as the Roosters shut down one final Cowboys attacking raid just before the siren.
The comeback continued after the break through Thurston, who wrong-footed Sonny Bill Williams close to the line to score next to the posts.
The gap was closed to six on the back of a Minichiello brain snap. With the Cowboys still dominating momentum, a Thurston kick from just outside his own 40 was headed for touch near the Roosters tryline. Possibly fearing a 40/20, Minichiello batted it back in, then had to head for his own dead ball line to pick it up.
Cowboys defenders were closing in and he threw a wild pass to winger Roger Tuivasa-Sheck, who couldn't pick up the bobbling ball with Rob Lui instead collecting the scraps.
When Matt Scott barged over from close range shortly after it was 30-all with less than 60 minutes played and the Roosters desperately needed a change in momentum.
They opted to take a penalty goal the next time they were in Cowboys territory despite a full set at the line in the offing after Tautau Moga took out a Roosters defender under a bomb, but Maloney missed the tricky chance.
With 60 points in 60 minutes threatening to evolve into a scoreless final 20, the field goal suddenly became a real option.
Maloney's wobbly 76th-minute effort allowed his side to play the final few minutes from in front, and some brutal defensive shots looked like closing the game out.
A late spread to the right put Moga and then Feldt in space, before an offload back infield led to the call that will have all of North Queensland shaking their heads in disbelief.
Sydney Roosters 31 (Tupou 2, Pearce, Jennings, Maloney tries; Maloney 5 goals, Maloney field goal) defeated North Queensland Cowboys 30 (Lowe, Cooper, Thurston, Lui, Scott tries; Thurston 5 goals) at Allianz Stadium. Crowd: 18,355.