Falcons stun Blackhawks in Townsville
The Melbourne vibes were strong prior to the Storm's NRL qualifying final clash with the Cowboys at AAMI Park, as Intrust Super Cup surprise packet Sunshine Coast Falcons eliminated the heavily-favoured Townsville Blackhawks 18-10 on Saturday afternoon.
Fringe NRL three-quarter Ryan Morgan stole the show with a hat-trick including the match-winner two minutes from time, as Saturday marks the Falcons' second major scalp away from home in as many weeks.
Their upset of PNG last week was shocking enough, and they have now booked an away preliminary final against the loser of Sunday's Redcliffe Dolphins-Burleigh Bears clash at Dolphin Oval.
The shoulder charge suspension handed down for Townsville centre Moses Pangai's hit on Young Tonumaipea last week loomed large over this elimination semi-final, as the Blackhawks lined up numerous players out of position.
It probably showed in the end with countless late-game errors plaguing any scoring opportunity the hosts had created.
While Townsville were arguably the more dominant side for a bulk of the afternoon, the Falcons' engine room again punched above its weight to largely match it with their in-form opposites.
Featuring five Melbourne Storm squad members including notables Ryan Morgan, Felise Kaufusi and Curtis Scott; and armed with ruck work akin to that of their parent club, the visitors gave the Blackhawks all they could handle through the middle in a tight first half.
Townsville took a 10-8 lead into the break on the back of halfback Michael Parker-Walsche's 40th-mintue try, while the crafty Morgan bagged a first-half brace and Blackhawk Delouise Hoeter touched down for first points off a pretty scrum movement to the right.
Kyle Laybutt's sin-binning late in the first half saved a certain Falcons try, but the effects were felt immediately as Morgan crossed for his second in the shadows of half-time.
The home side – camped on their goal-line – scrambled well without the emerging playmaker, but after a couple of potential point-scoring moments early in the half the game was marred by errors and penalties.
Red-zone attacking sets became a rarity and a failure to execute resulted in a scoreless first 22 minutes of the half, before Falcon Jye Ballinger swooped on a perfectly-weighted Ryley Jacks chip kick right.
His copybook winger's catch over former Cowboys superstar and Blackhawks right winger Matthew Bowen gave his side the lead, and Joe Stimson's well-struck sideline conversion gave the plucky visitors a 14-10 lead with 16 minutes remaining.
While Townsville was dominant for most of the second half, late errors to Laybutt, Willie Minoga and Parker-Walsche, including an ill-advised Laybutt grubber kick-and-chase, cruelled their chances, as Sunshine Coast landed the fatal blow on the Blackhawks' season in the 78th minute.
Off a quick play-the-ball, Falcons fullback Eddie Tautali exposed tired Townsville defenders, stepped left and offloaded inside to a supporting Ballinger who linked with Morgan for his hat-trick in the corner.
Whatever happens from now on, the Falcons can label 2016 a success.
Sunshine Coast Falcons 18 (Ryan Morgan 3, Jye Ballinger tries; Joe Stimson goal) defeated Townsville Blackhawks 10 (Delouise Hoeter, Michael Parker-Walsche tries; Matthew Bowen goal) at Jack Manski Oval, Townsville. Half-time: Blackhawks 10-8.