The North Queensland Cowboys have outclassed the Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles to score a commanding 30-12 point victory at Brookvale Oval on Monday night.
The win – the Cowboys' eighth in a row on the road – entrenches the men from North Queensland in the NRL's top two alongside fellow Queenslanders the Broncos.
It also further distances the top two Queensland teams from their NSW counterparts, with the Cowboys now four points clear of the third-place Sydney Roosters.
For the Sea Eagles, their task to sneak into the finals now appears much more treacherous, with victories in six of their last seven fixtures required to remain a chance.
If they do fail to reach that mark, they'll be the first Sea Eagles team to miss the finals since 2004.
If Manly were to have had any chance of getting the better of their opposition on Monday night, and get a string of wins together, they needed their star halves fit and firing.
That didn’t happen though, as Daly Cherry-Evans missed half the game with a shoulder injury, while Kieran Foran was visibly struggling with a leg complaint in the second half.
Manly will be sweating on news regarding DCE's left shoulder, given the influence he has on their success.
Meanwhile, the Cowboys' own superstar half, Johnathan Thurston, was brilliant as usual as he helped his side celebrate Gavin Cooper's 200th NRL match.
Thurston had the ball on a string with his kicking game, and led his team around the field with calm composure.
His brilliance was on show in the seventh minute as he ignited the scoring after the Cowboys benefited from consecutive sets on the Manly line. Off the back of a deep backline movement, the star five-eighth didn't look to pass, instead putting boot to ball setting up Antonio Winterstein perfectly on the wing.
But Manly's long-term halfback would even the ledger 10 minutes later, poaching an easy four-pointer off the back of a loose Cowboys offload. DCE was quick enough to kick the bouncing ball through before Matt Scott could dive upon it, reclaiming his grubber to score under the post.
Once again, a couple of penalties by Manly gave the Cowboys another great attacking opportunity in the 28th minute. North Queensland once again showed their attacking potency, this time scoring off a desperate late offload at the line by Lachlan Coote which was cleaned up by Kane Linnet.
A 32nd minute penalty goal extended the Cowboys' advantage to 14-6.
That gap looked likely to be bridged late in the first half as Manly found themselves in good attacking position on the Cowboys line. However a handling error and a ruthless counter attack by the Queenslanders meant the difference would only be widening before the half.
The Cowboys went 70 metres, exploiting an overlap on their right side to eventually score through Winterstein. That was the winger's second, and the third time North Queensland had scored down their left side in a worrying sign for the Manly right-edge defence.
In what became a crucial moment in the game, DCE went down with a left shoulder injury just before half-time. He would not return upon the beginning of the second half, however that blow was softened when Brett Stewart dived on a well-weighted Kieran Foran grubber to open Manly's scoring immediately upon resumption.
From then on Manly committed a few crucial errors before the Cowboys made them pay in the 60th minute as Michael Morgan sliced through. Showing off his speed, Morgan got on the outside of a sliding edge defender and had enough power to barge over from close range. Thurston failed to convert from near the sideline, but his team still held a commanding 24-12 point lead with 20 minutes remaining.
With a smart short-side play the Cowboys drove the nail into the coffin soon after as Morgan once again showed his running game, brushing off some soft defence to break through and set Jake Granville up under the posts.
North Queensland Cowboys 30 (Winterstein 2, Linnett, Morgan, Granville tries; Thurston 4 goals) defeated Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 12 (Cherry-Evans, Stewart tries; Lyon 2 goals) at Brookvale Oval. Crowd: 7,643