North Queensland's rising star Michael Morgan single-handedly delivered the Cowboys their sixth-straight victory on Saturday night, with the home side running out 23-16 winners at 1300SMILES Stadium.
Cowboys v Bulldogs: Five key points
WATCH: Morgan's heroic solo effort
WATCH: Full match highlights
WATCH: Cowboys press conference
WATCH: Bulldogs press conference
Superstar Johnathan Thurston was having a night to forget, yet the home side found a way.
Morgan is quickly becoming a genuine match-winner for North Queensland after the five-eighth busted a tiring Bulldogs side wide open six minutes from time.
“That’s part of our team’s development, there are plenty of guys that can do that. It’s about stepping up when the opportunity comes their way and he was great there tonight. It was a great try he came up with. He and Jake [Granville] combine well down that short side,” Cowboys coach Paul Green said after the game.
But the Cowboys didn’t have it all their own way after receiving a huge scare in the second half courtesy of three consecutive Bulldogs tries.
Josh Jackson got the ball rolling for Canterbury off a good first-option pass to find the back-rower hitting a hole through Thurston and Gavin Cooper.
That ignited the fire for the Doggies who were in next through some brilliant finishing from winger Corey Thompson who appeared to have been held up over the goal line.
Hodkinson was ice-cool with the boot converting both sideline conversions.
His opposite Thurston experienced his low point for the night with a second error in as many minutes – lofting a cut-out pass straight to the chest of a charging Curtis Rona, with the former Cowboy showing a clean pair of heels to run 80 metres and score.
But it was the Cowboys showing that ticker again to just find a way, with Thurston adding a late field goal to secure the result.
“I was confident if we could just get a bit of possession – and it was off the back of a couple of errors there – I just thought in the second half it was a really good game, we were going set for set with them and we probably just looked for something a little bit cheap,” Green said.
If you’re partial to points on the board, the first half was about as exciting as Mayweather-Pacquiao.
While both defences did a good job of slowing pay-the-balls, both were making good yardage but failed to execute where it mattered.
Both sides earned repeat sets and had many half-chances – especially the Cowboys – but could not convert them into points.
North Queensland owned the majority of field position through the first 20 minutes until the Dogs muscled up on defence and threw caution to the wind in attack.
Their run of dominance was short however, as the home side took back momentum on some monster Thurston field kicks.
But half-chances continued to produce nothing as right-side raids stalled with Justin O’Neill looking a little out of place after his shift to the centres in place of Tautau Moga.
Winger Matthew Wright looked to be in the clear before O’Neill’s pass was ruled to have been forward, while O’Neill – likely second-guessing the pass option after throwing it forward the first time – again lost a good chance at points by missing Wright on the overlap and taking the tackle.
The Cowboys continued to find everything but points – Michael Morgan lost it just metres out from the line, Ben Spina looked to be first to a loose ball in the in-goal until replays showed that Corey Thompson grounded it before losing control and Wright was inches short after running it on the last tackle.
The game was crying out for some individual brilliance and it was the youngster Morgan who delivered half an hour in.
The Cowboys loaded up on a left-hand shift, and on the next play Morgan had half of the field to roam out of five eighth, his dummy freezing Josh Morris just enough to burn him around the outside for first points.
Morgan had his hands in the second try of the match a minute from half-time when his sloppy pass found the turf and bounced past O’Neill, into the hands of his waiting winger Wright.
“A lot of their tries were opportunist I thought,” Dogs coach Des Hasler said post-game.
“From that point of view it was a little bit disappointing, but the second half we certainly upped the ante and we played a bit better.
“I was pretty pleased with the way we fought back in the second half against a Cobwoys side that is playing pretty well at the moment. They’re always hard to beat here.”
But against the trend of previous weeks, it was the North Queenslanders looking the weaker in the second 40, lucky to hold on for their sixth straight victory.
North Queensland Cowboys 23 (Michael Morgan 2, Matthew Wright, Gavin Cooper tries; Johnathan Thurston 3 goals, Thurston field goal) def. Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 16 (Josh Jackson, Corey Thompson, Curtis Rona tries, Trent Hodkinson 2 goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Half-time: Cowboys 12-0.