The North Queensland Cowboys are on top of the world after disposing of a determined Leeds Rhinos outfit 38-4 in the World Club Challenge at Headingley Stadium on Sunday night (Monday morning Australian time).
The teams were deadlocked at 4-all after 40 minutes as Leeds threw an adventurous brand of football at the NRL champions but the Cowboys got pumped up for the season ahead by showing the type of patience that only comes with a premiership victory.
The Cowboys scored 34 unanswered points in the second half which erupted nine minutes from full-time when Leeds prop Mitch Garbutt was sent off for punching James Tamou, Tamou himself sin-binned for a slap to the face of Keith Galloway that sparked the hostilities.
The final scoreline was somewhat of an unfair reflection of what was a gripping contest for the first 40 minutes, the Leeds crowd taken out of the equation when North Queensland scored from the opening set of the second half.
"It was tit for tat there going set for set and we made a few errors that put us under the pump but they're a quality side, Leeds," said Johnathan Thurston, was awarded the Graham Murray Medal as man of the match.
"They've been at the top of the table for a number of years and we knew they were going to come at us hard which they did and we ended up controlling the ball in the second half and got some points.
"It's a good reward for last year and couldn't be prouder of the boys. They've worked extremely hard the last couple of years and they deserve everything they get.
"I see the sacrifices they make week in and week out and how hard they train so they deserve everything they get.
"We're a special bunch of guys now and we've achieved something special and we're the world club champions now so they should be proud."
After the Roosters and Broncos had dished out floggings in the first two matches of the World Club Series, Leeds ensured the World Club Challenge will continue into the future with a spirited display that gave the boisterous home crowd plenty to cheer about.
With a strong wind at their backs they kept the Cowboys to 4-all at half-time but a mistake from Ash Handley in trying to take a Johnathan Thurston bomb at the end of the first set handed the NRL champions an easy four-pointer to Kane Linnett and from that point they were never headed.
Winger Kyle Feldt – who discarded Jordan Lilley with a brutal let-hand fend moments earlier – brushed aside England Test winger Ryan Hall to score in the 48th minute and Lachlan Coote grabbed his side's fourth when he juggled a Thurston grubber kick that ricocheted off the legs of a Leeds defender close to the line.
Having had the final hand in three of the first four tries Thurston claimed one for himself when he spun out of a tackle and dived over in the 65th minute, Justin O'Neill sliced through four minutes later and grabbed a second four minutes from full-time to close out a 34-point victory.
With a vastly different looking team to that which swept all before them in the Super League in 2015 Leeds chanced their hand from the opening set of the game, former Manly forward Adam Cuthbertson with an audacious offload in the very first tackle as they looked to unsettle the Cowboys defence.
Having created history by naming the same 17 that won the grand final – the first team in the history of the World Club Challenge to do so – the Cowboys were greeted not only by a willing Leeds team but driving rain and a stiff wind in the first 40 minutes.
On the back of their first penalty of the game Thurston laid on the opening try of the game for Michael Morgan, an aggressive decoy run by Ethan Lowe creating space on the outside for Morgan to slice through and score wide out in the 22nd minute.
Cuthbertson's insistence on never dying with the football in his grasp eventually paid dividends in the 32nd minute when he crashed into two Cowboys defenders close to the line and then popped a pass back to Leeds captain Rob Burrow who dived over to level the scores but that would be the only cause for celebration for the home side.
James Tamou (127m) and Ben Hannant (152m) were outstanding up front for the Cowboys, Coote was faultless in difficult conditions and Thurston picked up where he left off in 2015 with a classy display that sparked the majority of North Queensland's points.
North Queensland Cowboys 38 (Justin O'Neill 2, Michael Morgan, Kane Linnett, Kyle Feldt, Lachlan Coote, Johnathan Thurston tries; Johnathan Thurston 5 goals) def. Leeds Rhinos 4 (Rob Burrow try) at Headingley Stadium. Penalties: 12-5 Leeds. Half-time: 4-all. Graham Murray Medal: Johnathan Thurston (Cowboys). Sent off: Mitchell Garbutt (Leeds Rhinos). Sin bin: James Tamou (Cowboys).