Cowboys v Sharks: Five key points
The Cowboys overcome their mental obstacles, Scott's massive night, and why quality – not quantity – was key for Thurston. The key points to come from North Queensland's domiant semi-final victory over the Sharks.
Mental obstacles key to Cowboys triumph
The Cowboys were expected to win this game. They finished higher on the ladder and were playing at home in front of a rabid fan base who had begun to believe their 20-year wait for a maiden premiership was reaching its exciting climax.
They were as injury free as you can be at this time of year but the greatest challenge they were going to face – with all due respect to Cronulla – was how they dealt with the pressure of expectation. After a week one loss it's easy to see sudden-death football as the Grim Reaper emerging on the horizon but within 10 minutes they had dispelled any suggestion that the occasion was going to get to them.
The home side could not have been more emphatic in the opening 40 minutes as they completed more than 80 per cent of their first 22 sets while the Sharks succumbed to a completion rate little better than 50 per cent.
The Sharks' best chance of success was to make the Cowboys so nervous at the thought of losing they bumbled their way into oblivion but to the credit of coach Paul Green and his men, they were never given that opportunity.
"Personally I was a bit more nervous than normal," co-captain Matt Scott admitted after the game. "I don't think there was any one of us that wanted to end the year this early after all the hard work we've done this year and how well we've played to put ourselves in this position.
"There was a bit of nerves and pressure coming into it but as soon as the whistle blew they went away and when we started the way we did you can start getting into what we do well and we continued from there."
Scott carries finals burden
In the pre-match build-up Matt Scott spoke about erasing the pain of recent finals exits and the Cowboys co-captain seemed hell-bent on ensuring his team had the platform to progress to their first preliminary final in a decade next weekend. He powered through Luke Lewis, Paul Gallen and Jack Bird from the kick-off after an early penalty goal and with his first four carries had 57 metres and three tackle busts as the Cowboys went on an early rampage. Sharks back-rower Wade Graham did his best to shake up the inspired Ilfracombe lad but did little to quell an awesome first-up stint of a tick under 30 minutes that had amassed 113 metres from 10 first-half runs. He carried on carrying defenders in the second term to finish with 150 metres from 15 carries but it was the example he set that gave his team the greatest lift.
"He showed tonight what he's capable of and what we love seeing when he's in the groove," said Cowboys coach Paul Green.
"That's what we need not only from him but all of our players. I was really happy for him personally but also for the type of game we needed tonight, I thought he led us well."
"I was pretty happy with how I started," Scott added. "Some games go your way a little bit more than others which happened tonight.
"The line break I'm pretty happy with but that doesn't usually happen. In my head I just wanted to start strongly against a big, physical pack and try and do my job for the team. Very pleasing that I was able to do that and we made the most of it."
Morgan saves best for big occasion
Three years after a finals hat-trick announced him as someone who belonged in the game's top echelon, Cowboys five-eighth Michael Morgan bounced back from a performance he said had contributed to his team's loss to Brisbane to produce another star showing. Morgan was the skill and speed who converted early dominance into 12 points in the first 15 minutes of the game, slicing through when Sharks centre Ricky Leutele came up with a poor defensive read on his try line and then sent Justin O'Neill on a 45-metre run to score the Cowboys' second with a clever pass on a short-side shift that caught the Sharks off guard. Five minutes into the second half he muscled his way past Jeff Robson and Wade Graham in a sheer sign of will to score his second and give the Cowboys a 25-point buffer with 35 minutes left to play. He is the ideal Thurston foil and delivered on his promise of a more significant contribution.
"He was pretty disappointed personally after last week and I thought we saw glimpses of what he can do tonight," said Green.
"He took last week pretty hard so for us to move forward... I thought he was being too harsh on himself so we needed to make sure he was in the right headspace tonight and moving forward."
Sharks save their worst until last
You can credit to the Cowboys for the early stranglehold they took on the game but there was no question the Sharks contributed significantly to their own demise. Their first half stats were a head coach's horror show as they completed just half of their 16 sets, missed 15 tackles and made nine errors, not to mention being on the end of a 7-5 penalty count. Three players missed a tackle on Matt Scott from a kick-off, they kicked the ball dead from a restart after conceding their first try, lost their captain Paul Gallen to an ankle injury, sent two attacking sets over the dead-ball line to concede seven-tackle sets and made basic errors coming out of their own end that allowed the home side to completely dictate proceedings. It was not the way their courageous and entertaining season deserved to come to an end but, like in life, you rarely get to choose how you go out.
"It was a bit of a whirlwind that first half and we never caught up; it's not the way it's supposed to finish," said Sharks coach Shane Flanagan.
"They didn't deserve that finish the players. They've worked really hard all year and worked their butts off to be honest and it wasn't to be tonight but I don't think we deserved that."
"We had to stick in and go set for set but when we got the ball back we turned it back over too cheaply," said captain Paul Gallen.
"They got away to an 18-point lead and we couldn't shift the momentum because we made too many errors. We can't blame anyone but ourselves."
Supporting cast free Thurston to dictate play
The Cowboys were never going to be able to win a Telstra Premiership based on the exploits of one man alone, however great that man may be remembered in the future annals of rugby league. The key to unlocking North Queensland's potential always laid in the pursuit of empowering those around Johnathan Thurston to influence the team in their own way and Saturday night was an example of what can be achieved when 'JT' isn't left to do it all. The danger posed by Morgan's running game on the left, Lachlan Coote's judicious left-foot kicking, Jake Granville's threat from dummy-half and the ball-playing of John Asiata all served to free Thurston up to inject himself when the moment presented itself. He had a try assist from a pass to Ethan Lowe, one from a kick to the corner and another from a 20-metre speculator pass through his legs and kicked five goals and a field goal but it was a night of quality, not quantity, which is the balance the Cowboys have been desperately searching for.