All of a sudden the Cowboys are one of the league's form teams entering the Telstra Premiership finals, staking their claim with a dominant 32-16 victory over Gold Coast. The Titans came in desperate – and it showed – but a lack of polish cruelled their chances to build pressure and score points, with their finals destiny now out of their hands. Johnathan Thurston got the points on Hayne time and time again, while confidence is back within the Cowboys squad across the board.
Thurston dominates Hayne battle
Nothing could separate the two in Dally M voting two years ago, but on Saturday night the hyped matchup between two of the game's greats was a one-sided affair. Thurston thoroughly outpointed his opposition superstar in probably Hayne's worst game since returning to the NRL. Thurston came out on top in every face-to-face meeting in a underwhelming night for the Hayne Plane at the worst possible time as his side looked to lock up a top-eight berth. The three times they ran into each other Thurston rushed Hayne to force a knock on, stuck a leg out to block Hayne's short-range grubber kick and ran 50 metres downfield, and teamed up in a kick-chase to put the No.1 on his back.
Despite coming into the game feeling "dusty", Thurston exercised his will when needed, while Hayne's night was encapsulated by his dummy spit after his knock on five minutes from time.
Titans drop ball at crucial times
They looked just as dangerous as North Queensland in the middle of the field at times, but every half chance – especially early – ended with an error. Konrad Hurrell had tunnel vision for Thurston on every possible carry and it caused problems for the home side's middle, but unfortunately for the visitors, dropped ball from Chris McQueen, Agnatius Paasi and Leivaha Pulu killed off any chance of building genuine momentum in the moments they were still within striking distance. After the game coach Neil Henry lamented the missed opportunities in crucial moments.
"[The Cowboys] were high in their completion rate and that was the difference really," he said post-game.
"Probably four sets of possession and a couple of errors on our part, so we knew if we tightened that up we were in a game of footy, but we didn't really start the second half too well either."
Coote's confidence is back
Reminiscent of fellow Cowboys strike weapon Jason Taumalolo last year, fullback Lachlan Coote simply went missing through the middle part of the season. From the centre of State of Origin discussion in the early months to going almost unnoticed in club games, Coote's form slump was a cause of genuine concern. For the first time in a long time, Coote made people take notice with moments of magic with the boot and under the high ball. He kicked for O'Neill's try and darted an impressive 40/20 to heap pressure on the Titans at a time they were vulnerable early in the second half, while standing solid under a couple of colossal, swirling high balls and extreme kick-chase pressure. He also turned James Tamou inside for his late try, with his wayward pass for the Hurrell intercept try his only major blemish.
Precedent set with hookers drawing dubious penalties
Two minutes into the second half Titans hooker Nathan Friend deliberately threw the ball into Cowboys marker Patrick Kaufusi, who was standing to the side of the ruck in a blatantly offside position. It was a play a lot like that from Bronco Anthony Milford, who won the penalty by seeking out – funnily enough – Kaufusi's older brother, Felise, in last week's Storm-Broncos game. This one was a more clear-cut penalty as Patrick Kaufusi stood there making no effort to get out of the way of Friend at dummy0half, while Milford's was dubious at best as Felise was almost laying on the ground at the time. If the trend continues logic says we will see another play like this, where a dummy-half looks to win his side a cheap penalty, in an all-important finals game. Whether this kind of play is in the spirit of the game is up for debate, but the precedent has certainly been set.
Hurrell one of the game's strategic weapons
It's one thing to marvel at his toughness and unwavering body-on-the-line charges from the couch at home, but it's another to witness them from the grandstand. Konrad Hurrell's kamikaze runs at Thurston on Saturday did not do any damage to the tough-as-nails playmaker, but it did get us thinking about the potential of arguably the strongest centre we have ever seen. It's no secret that teams like to make opposition halves as uncomfortable as possible, and even make them hurt when the chance presents itself. In Hurrell the Titans have the ultimate 'toughness tester'.
Back-rowers are the 'bodyguards' of all halves, and help mitigate the damage when they are run at, but imagine the possibilities if Hurrell brought a support runner with him on either side. Second-rowers and centres would be disconnected from their halves somewhat, mindful of either support runner, while Hurrell takes full aim at the exposed half. If the Titans coaching staff can teach him the skill of the short pass – to genuinely draw the attention of surrounding defenders – there is no telling what kind of damage the 'Hurrellcane' can do.