Cowboys escape in thriller over Manly
Snatching victory from the jaws of defeat is now ritual in North Queensland.
The Cowboys made it nine wins in a row with a heart-stopping 18-14 victory over Manly on Saturday night, but for the first time this year crunch time looked to be getting the better of them.
North Queensland fumbled their way through the final 20 minutes with a handful of errors, but hooker Jake Granville saved it until the last possession of the game to spark the win for North Queensland.
Granville shot into space after an incisive dummy-half run a minute and a half out from full time, finding Lachlan Coote (214 running metres) on his inside.
Coote made it to within five metres of the line, but a quick play-the-ball ended up in the hands of Thurston who found Gavin Cooper – playing in the centres – for the last-minute try.
14,196 fans were on their feet as the siren went off before Thurston put the icing on the cake with a conversion that slid off the woodwork.
Matt Scott had come out a man on a mission after kick-off, making about 30 metres in two runs on the first set of the game after speculation he could have missed due to a cork.
The visitors meanwhile started in second gear and the Cowboys made them pay in their second set of the game when Scott again imposed his will to trample two Sea Eagles and take three more over the line from 10 metres out.
It was just the third time this season that the Cowboys had scored the first try.
North Queensland kept the intensity high and Manly were doing themselves no favours with penalty after penalty resulting in a talking-to to captain Jamie Lyon.
Manly have prided themselves on stonewalling goal-line defence in recent weeks and they showed it again as the Cowboys fumbled multiple attempts at points in the red zone.
It proved the impetus for the Sea Eagles to join the contest and they got their first genuine crack at points 12 minutes in when Foran ran on the fifth tackle but was cut down at the line.
Manly's forwards started wrestling back ascendency but the damage was done on the outers, marching up the field through Jorge Taufua runs early in the tackle count.
The league's lowest-scoring side of 2015 took full advantage of their next appearance on the Cowboys' line, with veteran fullback Brett Stewart finding Taufua in the corner with a flick of the wrist.
Thurston added to the Cowboys' woes when he threw his second intercept in three games straight to 18-year-old Tom Trbojevic who had taken his place at right centre after switching with five-eighth Jamie Lyon before kick-off.
Trbojevic showed some toe in the 90-metre run, eluding the ankle taps of Thurston and Antonio Winterstein only to be met at the goal line by Michael Morgan, whose fullback instincts kicked in to reach around and knock the ball free as Trbojevic was falling over the line.
Plays that have paid rich dividends for the Cowboys recently were being halted time after time by a strong Manly line that gave Taufua his second in the last minute of the half.
Again showing great shape on the left, Foran picked out the right man again as Stewart assisted Taufua for the second time.
Cowboys winger Antonio Winterstein was removed from the field just five minutes into the second half after an innocuous head clash with opposite Peta Hiku, as the game settled into a lull period.
Then after a Lachlan Coote line break, Matt Scott obliged with his second try of the night to have the Cowboys back in the lead, but it was short lived as 18-year-old sensation Trbojevic out-marked Kane Linnett off a pin-point Jamie Lyon kick to slam it down in the corner.
Wednesday's Origin looked to have taken a toll on Thurston, who was bereft of his usual time and space. Thurston's kick out-on-the-full 20 minutes out from time was just one error in a succession of sloppy North Queensland play as they tried to take back the lead.
Coote kicked it out on the full, Kane Linnett knocked it on twice and Justin O'Neill had a fit of the fumbles – all in the final 20 minutes as the Cowboys showed their first sign of crunch time nerves in the last two months.
But right on cue, Granville's dart out of dummy half had the Cowboys snatching the improbable win.
North Queensland Cowboys 18 (Matt Scott 2 tries, Gavin Cooper tries; Johnathan Thurston 3 goals) defeated Manly Sea Eagles 14 (Jorge Taufua 2, Tom Trbojevic tries, goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Crowd: 14,196. Half-time: Sea Eagles 8-6.