Cowboys storm into preliminary final
Known as a team that delivers in pressure scenarios, the Cowboys put in their best performance all season to dispatch the Cronulla Sharks 39-0 at 1300SMILES Stadium on Saturday night.
It was the ultimate test of their mentality and North Queensland responded with co-captains Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston running amok.
Scott laid the platform from the very start with a 150-metre performance but the polish was provided by Thurston and fullback Lachlan Coote who combined for the Cowboys' best kicking game of the year.
North Queensland came out with a sustained effort not seen at home all season, while the Sharks had nothing going for the majority of the first half.
The Cowboys did what they liked at a break-neck speed in attack while the Sharks were playing at a crawl. The visitors did themselves no favours, often marching North Queensland up-field after overzealous efforts to slow the ruck.
Sharks rookie sensation Jack Bird had a horror opening, coughing up the ball coming out of danger and giving away a penalty for Thurston to open his account with an easy two-pointer.
The home side was first over when Thurston hit Morgan on a cut-out ball, exposing a monstrous gap on the right after too much pressure on the left.
Nothing was going right for the Sharks who came out spooked and Michael Ennis didn't do anything to calm his side's nerves with a kick out on the full off the ensuing restart.
Luke Lewis knocked on close to the line and attacking raids were being shut down with ease by a Cowboys side that owned early proceedings yet let slip opportunities of their own.
Jason Taumalolo and James Tamou fluffed opportunities in the red zone but metre-eating colleague Scott was in his best touch all year, coming out of the first half with 10 hit-ups for 113 metres and a line break from the kick-off through three Sharks defenders.
Tamou made up for his blunder almost instantly, darting out of marker to strip Michael Ennis, which led to the second try of the night.
Morgan beat Robson with a gorgeous right-foot step and connected with speedster Justin O'Neill to touch down next to the sticks, while unsung hero of the forward pack Scott Bolton went against the grain out of first-receiver for a soft try close to the line.
Thurston put the finishing touches on a first 40 minutes to remember for the 21,683 in attendance with a field goal on the stroke of half-time.
While the Cowboys lacked some of their first-half polish in the second 40, they were just as stout on the defensive line.
Paul Gallen, sporting an injured ankle, battled manfully but he was the shining light in a Cronulla side that was given very little room to move all night.
Morgan opened the account in the second half with a barging effort through Robson, while Winterstein burrowed through Bird whose night never got better.
The zippy Ben Barba sparked what looked like the Sharks' first points but an off-target pass had Sosia Feki reaching for his bootlaces, fumbling it in front of an open try line.
While Cronulla could not stick a kick into the in-goal, pressure was being heaped on by Thurston and Coote.
More points came late for the typically fast-finishing North Queensland who had tries through Kyle Feldt and Ethan Lowe for a final score of 39-0.
While 2015 is over for the gritty Sharks side, they can hold their heads high after a year of beating expectations.
North Queensland Cowboys 39 (Michael Morgan 2, Justin O'Neill, Scott Bolton, Antonio Winterstein Kyle Feldt, Ethan Lowe tries; Johnathan Thurston 5 goals, Thurston field goal) defeated Cronulla Sharks 0 at 1300SMILES Stadium. Half-time: Cowboys 19-0. Crowd: 21,683. On report: Wade Graham (Sharks, 52nd minute).