Broncos v Cowboys: Five key points
What we learned from Brisbane's win over North Queensland in a classic finals contest at Suncorp Stadium on Sunday.
There's always a place for the super sub
Broncos hooker Andrew McCullough made 37 tackles in the first half so had well and truly earned a spell but the longer the game went the more likely it appeared his back-up Kodi Nikorima would be the understudy left waiting backstage.
But with his first touch in the 64th minute Nikorima blasted out of the blocks from dummy-half to split the Cowboys defence and when he looked to his left 30 metres from the Cowboys try-line it was another man of diminutive stature in Anthony Milford waiting for just such an opening.
North Queesland No.9 Jake Granville had been worked into the ground with a heavy defensive workload in the first half so when Wayne Bennett played his trump card the opposition had nothing left up their sleeve.
"You could say I was a genius," joked Broncos coach Wayne Bennett.
"It just reminds you again of what a fresh body can do. When he came onto the ground they'd been plying their hearts out for 60 minutes. It's like running half a marathon and someone says you've got the last two kays to run. You're always going to look good but he was wonderful and got the job done for us."
Broncos' unbreakable wall built on pure will
One tackle summed up the Broncos' defensive efforts that have been evident ever since South Sydney handed them a touch-up in Round 1. Johnathan Thurston went to the line as the Cowboys again pressed deep in Brisbane territory and put Ethan Lowe through a hole that against almost any other team would have resulted in a try to the right of the posts. But then came Corey Parker with a desperate off-balance hit that not only stopped Lowe in his tracks but jolted the ball free from his grasp.
For most of the first half the Cowboys started their sets in good field position but the closer they got to the try-line the more impenetrable the Brisbane defence appeared to be. Justin O'Neill was held up over the line, Kyle Feldt was bumped enough to spill a chance in the corner and not until the Broncos made an error 25 metres out from their line could the Cowboys find a way through. Coaches talk a lot about defensive systems and structures but they all require desire to function effectively.
"It's been strong for us all season and it held up again tonight," Parker told Channel Nine.
"These guys are as good as anyone that I've had because they have a belief and a trust in each other and they don't want to let each other down and that's what you see out there," said Bennett.
"It's not that they have a magical defensive system or anything else, these guys just bought into it."
Points at a premium at finals time
With a total of three points deciding the first two matches of the NRL Finals Series it was perhaps little surprise that the Broncos would choose to take a gift two points on offer in the ninth minute following a penalty 12 metres out.
Alex Glenn earned his team the penalty with Corey Parker giving his hamstring a light workout with a simple goal from beside the posts and a 2-0 lead.
Despite trailing by eight points the Cowboys took the chance to reduce the deficit by converting a penalty goal in the 34th minute after Ethan Lowe spilled a try-scoring chance close to the line.
To close out the first half Ben Hunt took a shot at field goal from beyond the 30-metre line just in case that was all that separated them through 80 minutes. Then, with his team trailing by two but on a roll in the 54th minute Thurston rolled the dice by turning down a penalty shot at goal and come unstuck when Gavin Cooper spilled the ball a metre out from the try-line. When the Broncos got their chance to extend their lead with 20 minutes to play, Parker bounced one in off the upright for a 10-6 advantage.
In the end it was just two tries apiece with Parker's two penalty goals proving the difference.
Halfback masterclass on both sides
They are vastly different in shape and style but the influence of both Ben Hunt and Johnathan Thurston was a masterclass for any young footballer with designs on wearing the No.7 jersey.
Hunt's vision opened up an opportunity on the left early in the first half before Thurston countered with a shift to the right at the other end that saw Justin O'Neill held up over the try-line. Thurston's tenaciousness saw him leading the way on his own kick-chase while Hunt's bravery in defence was evident by strong tackles on the likes of Gavin Cooper and Jason Taumalolo.
After a torrid opening 25 minutes Hunt broke the game wide open by exposing a tired Cowboys defence for a 30-metre solo special with a show-and-go 'JT' himself would have been proud of. When Corey Oates made an error early in the second half 25 metres out Thurston pounced on the next play, releasing Lachlan Coote on the left who sent Antonio Winterstein on a path to the try-line. With his team down by 10 points with time running out it was Thurston pushing through on a speculative Justin O'Neill kick with his conversion from wide out bringing his team back within range with nine minutes left.
"He's grown all year and he's one of the reasons why we're where we are," said Bennett.
"He was my biggest project when I came back. I realised that we had to get him on song about things in the game that win for you as opposed to things that lose for you. He had a lot of traits on the other side of the board.
"To his credit he's bought into it all and he's a changed player and we can see the wonderful things that he brings for us."
A Queensland rivalry to savour
Any periods of success either of these teams have enjoyed over the past decade have been largely mutually exclusive but right now Queensland boasts a rivalry the equal of any in the competition. Two of the most dominant teams of the season enthralled more than 50,000 fans at Suncorp Stadium on Saturday night with the result in the balance until the very final minute. Eleven years since North Queensland struck a blow for little brothers everywhere, the Broncos emerged from a four-year slumber to hand junior a not-so-subtle reminder that they are not willing to be superceded just yet.
In the build-up Sam Thaiday said the Cowboys had assumed the No.1 Maroon mantle while Wayne Bennett said he cared little for such comparisons. There's still the chance these two teams can meet on Grand Final day and if they do it will be another contest to savour.
"That's one of the best games I've ever been a part of," Ben Hunt said.