Cowboys v Broncos: Five key points
The class of the Cowboys eventually shone through but there was plenty to suggest that the Broncos will be right in the mix when finals footy rolls around in another classic Queensland derby in Townsville.
Near flawless football is hard to beat
On Friday night the Broncos found themselves up against a team completing at more than 90 per cent, who had 50 more runs of the footy on the back of almost 60 per cent of possession, and with 10 minutes to play they were level. It took until Lachlan Coote's field goal in the 74th minute for the Broncos to finally – and in some ways mercifully – be put to the sword having had just four uses of the football in the final 17 sets of the game. At one point midway through the second half they repelled an attack being orchestrated by the game's best player four times on their own line in succession as they made a total of 90 more tackles than their opposition.
"Certainly a lot happier with this performance than I was after our Round 3 game [against the Broncos]," said Cowboys coach Paul Green. "You can play a brand of footy that's not expansive yet still complete high but I thought we still asked plenty of questions tonight and there was some nice play there from our blokes."
"We take a lot of pride in our defence. If we get beaten every week by a team with that completion rate it's a positive for us," said Brisbane skipper Justin Hodges. "I'm proud of the boys and the way we stuck in there. The way we defended our line for a lot of sets, a lot of teams would have given up a few more points than what we did. They probably just had one too many sets."
Thurston's decision-making is unparalleled
Whether it was a deft kick into the in-goal, bouncing up after a big hit or laying on tries with a superbly executed pass or kick, no player in the game today is more adept at picking apart a defence even slightly on their heels than Johnathan Thurston. The mastery of Thurston lies in the fact that if you hold off as a defender he takes the time to make the perfect decision but if you rush at him he adjusts so quickly and is able to find space for his support players. He is a tactical genius with an unmatched ability to think on his feet and when his forwards are winning the middle, it's virtually impossible to keep him out of the game.
"If you give that much ball to a quality side with a champion halfback he's going to make you pay sooner or later," was Hodges' simple assessment.
Ethan Lowe now a major Cowboys' weapon
After a couple of years developing his game with the Northern Pride in the Intrust Super Cup, the promise Ethan Lowe showed in the National Youth Cup with the Cowboys is now transferring to the top grade. A massive young man with deft skills with both hands and feet – as evidenced by his delicate chip into the in-goal midway through the second half – Lowe runs tough lines for his playmakers on the right edge and demands complete commitment from defenders with designs on stopping his progress. Against the Broncos he scored an important try off a perfectly-timed Thurston pass and finished with 91 metres and 29 tackles and was an ever-present threat. With his combination with Gavin Cooper on the left, Thurston now has a similar style player to go to on the right.
"He's developing and improving, if he can just get a couple of those defensive errors out of his game he'll be a better player but that's the area he needs to work on," said Cowboys coach Paul Green. "His development pathway is certainly heading in the right direction and pleasing for us to re-sign him as well."
JT has finally found his foils
The competition is too tough in the modern game for a player such as Johnathan Thurston to single-handedly carry a team to a premiership but in Michael Morgan and Lachlan Coote, 'JT' has the support cast that will allow him to command the stage like few others. With his ability to play both sides of the field Thurston's willingness to link with Morgan on the right-hand side was a major contributor in his five-eighth scoring a hat-trick and Coote's calm left boot not only earned back-to-back repeat sets at a crucial time in the game but slotted the field goal that gave the Cowboys the seven-point buffer all teams crave as the clock counts down. Coote's 23 runs for 193 metres with five tackle busts is further proof that he has shaken off any lingering demons attached to his ACL injury last season and that he is getting back to the type of football that earned him City Origin and PM's XIII jerseys in 2012.
"I thought 'Cootey' was outstanding," said Thurston. "His kicking game, his touch close to the line – I think he got three repeats in a row which is outstanding. He played really well for us."
"[Morgan] has taken a lot of pressure off 'Thursto'," added Broncos captain Justin Hodges. "He was their best player tonight and probably the last few weeks as well of the games that I've caught. He's not too far from Origin but I'm not a selector."
An all-Queensland Grand Final is a real possibility
The opening onslaught of the Broncos and their initial resistance to the Cowboys' comeback showed how far they have come in such a short space of time under coach Wayne Bennett while North Queensland's composure to fight back and go into the break leading 14-12 showed all the hallmarks of a team with great ambitions in 2015. They both have difficult yet winnable assignments away to the Tigers and Knights without their Origin contingent next weekend while the Cowboys also have to navigate their way past the Dragons in Round 17 sans Thurston, Scott et al. If they can get to Round 20 near the top four with a relatively healthy roster then both can push for home finals in the closing six weeks. Get that, and we could have the NRL's first all-Queensland Grand Final.
Gee I hope the Broncos & Cowboys meet in finals. Not first week, last week. Great game tonight #BroncosLIVE— Todd Balym (@balym_CMail) May 15, 2015
"It's everything for us the next two months. By my calculations this will be going on for two months now," Bennett said of the Origin period that is now upon us. "We're developing a squad right now and we need a squad. We're going to need that before the year's out and I'm really pleased with that. We need to know what these young players can and can't do and they were all good tonight, they didn't let us down."
"We've put ourselves in a good position but it's obviously going to be a tough two months for us," said Thurston. "There are expectations from the boys that when they come in and pull the jersey on they need to do a job and we've got the full confidence in the squad being able to do that."