Michael Morgan has staked his claim for the Queensland Maroons No.14 jumper in the most emphatic fashion, single-handedly winning the game for North Queensland for the second time in seven days, helping his side defeat the Broncos 31-20 at 1300SMILES Stadium on Friday night.
Morgan is no flash in the pan. The 23-year-old five-eighth has delivered yet again in the club’s biggest fixture of the year with a hat-trick, burying the Cowboys’ demons of Round 3.
With scores locked at 20 with 10 minutes remaining, Morgan showed his incredible strength at the line to bulldoze over Anthony Milford and through Jack Reed to slam home the go-ahead try.
The Cowboys iced the game minutes later with a Lachlan Coote field goal.
Brisbane rushed Johnathan Thurston, who calmly dished left to Coote for an easy field goal five minutes out from time.
Taking a 14-12 lead into half-time the Cowboys kept the motor hot, scoring first in less than five minutes through a try to Origin hopeful Gavin Cooper, who muscled Ben Hunt out of the contest and dunked it home with the left hand.
Fluid ball movement early in the first half had coagulated into a sloppy mess for the Broncos in the second, who failed to register points for over half an hour through the middle of the game.
While the Broncos were lacking polish, the Cowboys converted at an uncanny 92 per cent (34-37 sets).
"You certainly put yourself in every game if you've got that sort of ball control," Cowboys coach Paul Green said.
"[The Broncos] are a team that plays pretty quick. We needed to have a high completion rate tonight and it was pleasing that the boys were able to execute when they needed to."
But just as the visitors were looking down and out, Broncos five-eighth Milford produced the kind of magic capable of very few, piercing Morgan and Ethan Lowe with a quick burst of speed and flipping it over the top to Lachlan Maranta for his second.
"I'm not disappointed in the Broncos at all," Brisbane coach Wayne Bennett said after the game.
"I was more than pleased with us. They [Cowboys] were on their game and they played really really well and I'm not walking away from here disappointed with what we did."
Corey Parker hit a penalty goal in the 52nd minute and the game was anyone’s with scores locked at 20.
The Cowboys came out of the stoppage the sharper side, earning two repeat sets sparked by a perfectly placed ball from Ethan Lowe – his second kick of the night – after some hot-potato footy.
But that was when match-winner Morgan wrangled the Cowboys the two points for the second time in seven days, followed by Coote’s one-pointer and a late third to Morgan for his hattrick.
The game opened with great defensive line speed from both sides until Darius Boyd put Jack Reed away down the left.
Reed linked up with Maranta for a 40 metre burst before being cut down by Coote, but the Cowboys line never recovered and Maranta was swan diving over a couple of tackles later, after another desperate try-saver by Coote on Alex Glenn.
The visitors were eating North Queensland alive in the early going with the likes of Boyd, Reed, Glenn and Andrew McCullough playing perfect footy in confined spaces down the left edge.
"There were a couple of defensive errors from us that led to line-breaks and most of them happened further down our end of the field," Green said.
"I was a little bit disappointed in those defensive errors but they are certainly very fixable."
Offload after offload was followed by even better support running as North Queensland failed to contain Brisbane’s second-phase play – something the Cowboys pride themselves on.
15 minutes in and more incisive Broncos runs had the Cowboys at sixes and sevens on the left, and the easiest of right-side shifts had Jordan Kahu over in the corner for the second four-pointer of the night.
The Broncos were playing a pristine brand of footy at a ridiculous intensity which had peaked for the first 40 minutes at the Kahu try.
Adam Blair dropped the pill on the first hit-up after the restart and Brisbane’s line gradually started to lose its bite as the Cowboys gobbled up territory through the middle.
Budding superstar Morgan capitalised on the Cowboys’ best field position of the night with what is becoming a trademark sweeping run to the right corner.
Much like their first try last week, the Cowboys emptied the right side for the 23-year-old who was given free rein to probe, and again the defence failed to lay a hand on the electric five-eighth until it was too late.
Brisbane had the next shot at points but bench prop Jarrod Wallace put down a golden opportunity to get the lead back to double-digits on the goal line.
The sides would exchange blows set for set until Cowboys prop Matt Scott punched one too many holes into Brisbane’s line, giving Thurston a paddock of space.
There was only one way that was going to end – in points – with Thurston waiting for the perfect opportunity to hit a galloping Ethan Lowe on the chest.
North Queensland’s win makes it a club record seventh-straight victory and their 200th win as a franchise.
North Queensland Cowboys 31 (Michael Morgan 3, Ethan Lowe, Gavin Cooper tries; Johnathan Thurston 5 goals, Lachlan Coote field goal) def. Brisbane Broncos 20 (Lachlan Maranta 2, Jordan Kahu tries, Corey Parker 4 goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Crowd: 24,531. Half-time: Cowboys 14-12