Cowboys win another classic Queensland derby
For the full 90 minutes they stared the game's greatest curse right in the face. And they came through to defy not only the odds, but belief.
The North Queensland Cowboys escaped from the clutches of their fiercest foe with a 26-20 victory in Friday night's semi-final at 1300SMILES Stadium, going a step closer to the first back-to-back premiership victories in the NRL era.
Some would say it was the football gods, others would say it was the football god.
North Queensland 'deity' Johnathan Thurston came up with the biggest moment of the 2016 competition, splitting a Broncos line – which was out on its feet – in the 85th minute, flicking a ball inside for Michael Morgan's game-winning try.
At 20-18 down, the Cowboys' back-to-back dream looked decimated before experienced Bronco Matt Gillett committed the ultimate brain explosion, tripping Thurston who tried to step inside the second-rower in a last-gasp effort to get back ahead.
Thurston iced the subsequent penalty goal and sent the game into its first ever 'extra time' period.
Cowboys wrecking ball and RLPA Player of the Year Jason Taumalolo along with future star Coen Hess were immense, with a combined 40 carries and 436 run metres as the Cowboys put the foot down – as they often do – in the game's latter stages.
Kyle Feldt's opening kick-off was aimed at only one man – Ben Hunt – and while the halfback secured it safely, hooker Andrew McCullough's 40/20 attempt sailed two metres over the sideline, allowing the home side to start things in prime real estate on their very first set.
In typical Broncos fashion they repelled the Cowboys raid, which sparked the likes of Sam Thaiday and Adam Blair into action.
The 'Fro Bros' were winding up off the back fence in their early carries, with Blair's strong angled run drawing a high shot from Jason Taumalolo.
McCullough made up for his wayward kick right away, burying over from dummy-half for the Broncos' first points just four minutes into the contest.
The Cowboys claimed to have gained invaluable big-game experience from last year's premiership run, but they were almost scared of the occasion as Queensland's big brother imposed its physical dominance.
The Cowboys were being starved of possession and got through a lot of work early. Departing prop James Tamou tackled like a man possessed – 24 in his 23-minute stint – while the Broncos were showing perhaps their best power running game all season.
North Queensland fullback Lachlan Coote – often regarded the NRL's best diffuser of kicks – did not help the hosts' cause with four nervous moments off kicks.
First it was an ill-advised forward pass in trying to shift the pill off a kick return, he then let two high kicks bounce, and finally spilled a tricky Darius Boyd grubber kick to serve up Jordan Kahu's try on a silver platter right before half-time.
Both sides had their moments, including a breakaway try in the corner to Coen Hess off Kyle Feldt's line break, in a typically fast-paced first 40.
He may have been down on confidence for a large parts toward the end of the year, but Coote kept his head up for a few big-time plays include a floating bomb, try-saving tackle on Boyd, but another monumental spill – this time off a bomb – gave the Broncos a full set to attack the line and put the margin beyond two converted tries. But the Broncos came up empty, and just as they have all year, the Cowboys found a way to score.
With a play-the-ball a metre out from the goal-line – meterage fuelled by strong run after strong run from Hess – the Cowboys went right when it appeared the numbers were to the left. But Morgan's perfectly placed, early delivery to Justin O'Neill, who beat Tom Opacic with a right-foot step on the catch, to score and get the hosts back within two points.
Broncos winger Corey Oates soon knocked-on in play-the-ball and O'Neill got to the outside of Opacic and bagged his brace in the space of five minutes, again via Morgan's hand.
Up 18-14, the Cowboys looked to apply the kill shot 15 minutes from time, but after coming up empty in multiple sets, an inexplicable defensive breakdown appeared to have ended their premiership defence.
A complete right-side breakdown was exposed and Oates was sent steaming down the left for an 80-metre runaway try under the sticks.
But the football gods don't let up for a second when it comes to this rivalry. With under two minutes to go, Bronco Matt Gillett was reported for a trip on Thurston, who levelled scores at 20-20.
The game then entered extra time, with the home side going on to book their spot in the preliminary finals with a trip to Allianz Stadium to face the Sharks next week.
North Queensland Cowboys 26 (Justin O'Neill 2, Coen Hess, Michael Morgan tries; Johnathan Thurston 5 goals) defeated Brisbane Broncos 20 (Andrew McCullough, Jordan Kahu, Corey Oates tries; Jordan Kahu 4 goals) at 1300SMILES Stadium. Half-time: Broncos 14-6. Crowd: 23,804. On report: Matt Gillett (tripping).