Eels out as Cowboys dream lives on
Cowboys halfback Michael Morgan has orchestrated a second-half masterclass to send North Queensland into the preliminary finals with a 24-16 victory over the Parramatta Eels at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night.
The Cowboys completed at 100 per cent in the opening half but were left to rue two length-of-the-field tries against the run of play to trail by four at the break to a free-flowing Eels outfit, who were heavily backed in front of an impressive crowd of 41,287.
Finals experience was the key in the end however with back-to-back tries to the Cowboys in the second half proving the ultimate blow as the Eels were starved of territory on the back of Morgan's boot.
Parramatta simply had no answers for Paul Green's side at the backend of the contest with Morgan crossing for a well-deserved four-pointer with five minutes left to kill off any chance of a comeback and effectively end the Parramatta's finals campaign.
The Eels were forced to play with 16 men for 75 minutes with Daniel Alvaro taken from the field for a head injury assessment after a collision with Taumalolo, with the forward later ruled out of the contest.
Parramatta winger Kirisome Auva'a spilt a kick in the fifth minute to allowed North Queensland the first chance to attack.
But the advantage reversed sourly for the visitors when a cross-field kick was cleanly picked up by Semi Radradra, the Fijian flyer racing 100 metres to score under the posts for a 6-0 lead.
It proved to be Radradra's last highlight in the NRL, with the winger going over for his 82nd try in the competition before departing for French rugby.
North Queensland responded within three minutes when Eels centre Brad Takairangi was caught in-field. The Cowboys sent the ball right to create the overlap and Kane Linnett found Kyle Feldt who went over in the corner, diving acrobatically with centimetres between his body and the grass.
Neither side could capitalise on territory inside their opposition's 20-metre zone with last-play options leaving a lot to be desired. Parramatta went close on two occasions with Michael Jennings unable to find a teammate in space, before a Mitchell Moses grubber kick was taken out of Radradra's grasp from Lachlan Coote.
The Eels' hit the lead again with another long-range try against the run of play, when a Morgan kick ricocheted off Will Smith's chest and the Eels fullback raced 80 metres to score untouched.
Parramatta started the second half in a jittery fashion as the Cowboys controlled early possession to deliver two killer blows and suddenly race to an eight-point lead.
Another kick from Morgan was left to bounce by Smith and Cowboys prop John Asiata wrestled the Eels No.1 in-goal and snatched the ball in the process to score.
It was a reason to celebrate for Asiata with the utility forward's first try in the NRL Telstra Premiership after 76 appearances.
Returning Cowboys centre Justin O'Neill split through the Eels defensive line to help set up the visitors' third – Te Maire Martin opting to turn the ball back inside on the last tackle for Coen Hess to stroll over untouched.
Brad Arthur's side began to lose their way with a series of errors midway through the second half as the Cowboys used their finals experience to their advantage.
Moses went close but fell short of the line with Hess pulling off a try-saver, before back-rower Manu Ma'u lost the ball in the act of scoring the following play.
Parramatta's woes continued when a returning Kaysa Pritchard threw a forward pass immediately after getting onto the paddock, before the experience of Taumalolo jolted the ball free from a charging Suaia Matagi.
Taumalolo was again enormous for the Cowboys with 211 metres in 55 minutes, while opposite number Nathan Brown was strong in a beaten side as Jennings darted over for a consolation four-pointer with seconds remaining.
North Queensland now set up a date with the Sydney Roosters in next week's preliminary final at Allianz Stadium for a place in the 2017 grand final.
North Queensland Cowboys 24 (Feldt, Asiata, Hess, Morgan tries; Lowe 4 goals) defeated Parramatta Eels 16 (Radradra, Smith, Jennings tries; Moses 2 goals) in the semi-final at ANZ Stadium. Half-time: Eels 10-6. Crowd: 41,287.