Johnathan Thurston was significantly hampered by a stomach bug in the days leading up to Friday night's Telstra Premiership semi-final against the Broncos but rather than succumbing inspired North Queensland to a 26-20 victory to keep their season alive.
The Cowboys are now just one win away from a second consecutive grand final appearance with the Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks the team standing in the way of the defending premiers playing on the first weekend of October again this season.
Had Thurston been unable to take the field against a committed Brisbane team it's unlikely that the Cowboys would have progressed but despite playing in significant discomfort came up with the clutch plays that first levelled the scores at 20-all and then gave North Queensland a match-winning advantage in extra time.
In commentary for Channel Nine Phil Gould said that he had never seen Thurston look so physically impaired so early in a game, the game's best player doubled over regularly in the tropical humidity and copping heavy knock after heavy knock.
In the fifth minute of extra-time Thurston got on the outside of Broncos back-rower Sam Thaiday before landing a flick pass on the chest of Michael Morgan to score after earlier earning a penalty courtesy of a careless trip by Matt Gillett.
They're the freakish pieces of play we selfishly expect from the game's best player on a weekly basis but Cowboys coach Paul Green paid special tribute to his co-captain given the duress he was playing under.
"It was a huge play in the context of things," Green said of Thurston's work for Morgan in extra time.
"Not that he'll probably make too much of a deal of it but he wasn't feeling 100 per cent going into the game so it was a huge effort from him and from all the boys tonight."
Seemingly struggling to even get through the post-game press conference after an exhausting 90-minute performance, Thurston confirmed that he had been laid low by a stomach bug before running through his all-important try assist for Morgan.
"I was looking to my outside but I could only see 'Morgs' coming up," Thurston explained.
"He came back under and I just gave him the ball.
"Very proud of the boys, the way that they stayed really composed considering the way that we started the game and the way that we came out after half-time.
"Extremely proud of the way everyone reacted."
In addition to Thurston and the rampaging Jason Taumalolo, two rookies had nights to remember for the Cowboys.
In Green's words 20-year-old back-rower Coen Hess "terrorised Anthony Milford" and came up with 191 metres and 30 tackles in a 90-minute performance while debutant Kalyn Ponga handled the occasion like only the good ones do.
Having played next to no wing in recent years, Ponga ran for 233 metres and drew high praise from his coach but may struggle to retain his place for the clash with the Sharks, Green expecting both Antonio Winterstein (rib cartilage) and Kane Linnett (calf) to be close to full fitness.
"They won't be too far away," Green said.
"There's a big chance possibly both of them will be back so we'll just wait and see.
"For now though the most important thing given we played 90 minutes of footy there tonight at a pretty hectic pace in hot conditions, most of next week will be about recovery."
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