The Newsroom reviews the weekends action in the NRL semi-final stage, which saw the Cowboys and the Raiders get through to the preliminary finals, where they will meet the Sharks and the Storm to decide the Grand Final contenders.
Cowboys win after Gillett throws it away
The North Queensland Cowboys and the Brisbane Broncos produced another classic encounter born of their intense rivalry for dominance north of the border. The Townsville game went to extra time after a moment of madness by Matt Gillett allowed the Cowboys to level with an easy penalty goal just two minutes from what looked like a Broncos victory.
The Broncos burst out of the blocks showing great intensity, but were matched by the home side in a topsy-turvy contest. Players from both sides were on their haunches just 20 minutes in, struggling to keep up with the pace. The Cowboys failed to capitalise on a mistake by Andrew McCullough, who kicked out on the full in Brisbane’s first set, and it was the Broncos who scored first, McCullough gaining immediate redemption from dummy half. Brisbane increased its lead to 8-0 though a penalty goal before the Cowboys’ 2015 Grand Final hero, Kyle Feldt, broke through some lethargic Broncos defenders inside his own 20 then linked up with Justin O’Neill who flicked the ball out to send young back-rower Coen Hess across in the corner. Brisbane regained an 8-point lead just before the break when Lachlan Coote fumbled a Darius Boyd grubber in front of a charging Jordan Kahu. Kahu converted – 14-6.
Brisbane rookie Tom Opacic’s inexperience showed 17 minutes into the second half when he was fooled by Justin O’Neill, who sidestepped to score under the posts. Skipper Johnathan Thurston converted to close the gap to two points, then O’Neill gave the Cowboys the lead, scoring again just four minutes later. A short pass from Morgan sent him slicing past the tiring Brisbane defence, burning Alex Glenn and Corey Oates for pace on Brisbane’s left. Thurston’s kick took the scores to 18-14. Somehow, despite the Brisbane forwards flagging, Boyd put Oates in the clear to step off his left foot and race away past Coote to touch down under the posts. Kahu’s conversion put Brisbane ahead once more, 20-18, with just 9 minutes left on the clock.
The Cowboys were attacking Brisbane’s line and might – or might not – have succeeded in snatching a win or forcing extra time, but then Matt Gillett downed Thurston with a blatant trip just 20 metres from the posts with less than two minutes to go. Thurston seized the opportunity to level, ensuring 10 minutes of extra time under the new finals rules. Jason Taumalolo, who put on a brilliant performance for the Cowboys, capped his night with a storming run that set up his skipper to strike just four minutes in. Thurston took on the line from 20 out and looked set to go solo, but having got the full attention of the Broncos defenders he turned on the magic with a gem of a flick back inside to send Michael Morgan crashing through for what proved to be the winning try. Cowboys won 26-20.
The match brought Corey Parker’s incredible 348-game career to a disappointing close, but the Broncos skipper had nothing to be ashamed of; he played a superb match, fighting to the end for one more win. The Cowboys will meet the Cronulla Sharks on Friday night in the first preliminary final. – Patrick Staveley
Canberra too strong for Penrith
The return of Blake Austin after two weeks out with a hand injury helped the Canberra Raiders put paid to the Penrith Panthers’ 2016 season. The dynamic half returned with a vengeance, scoring in the 12th minute after a swift lunge off his left foot from close range. Everything seemed to be going the Raiders’ way, and their perseverance was rewarded five minutes from half-time when Jordan Rapana chased down a Joey Leilua kick, grounding it centimetres from the dead-ball line. The Panthers attack could make no impression on the green machine’s defence, and the teams went in to the sheds at 12-0.
At the restart the Raiders immediately resumed the attack, making good ground and feeding the ball to Jarrod Croker, who had just enough room to score inside three minutes. Croker converted his try to open the lead to 18. Penrith threw everything they had into the attack but nothing seemed to click for them until halfway through the session, when they somehow seemed to regain belief. Tyrone Peachey gathered a spectacular lofted pass by Matt Moylan to open the Panthers’ score, then barely six minutes later Dallin Watene Zelezniak finished off a well-oiled set piece orchestrated by Nathan Cleary and Bryce Cartwright. Cleary converted both tries to get Penrith within one converted try of the Canberra score, but the Raiders lifted to blunt the Penrith attack. The Panthers finally put paid to their chances by giving away penalties for high tackles, allowing Croker to increase the margin to 10 and book Canberra’s first appearance in a preliminary final since the Super League era. The Raiders won 22-12.
Croker ended the game with 296 points for the season and looks to be a good chance to reach 300 at AAMI Park on Saturday – matching greats like Brett Hodgson and Hazem El Masri – when the Raiders meet the Melbourne Storm. – Jesse Mullens
Photo of Johnathan Thurston celebrating with the faithful from the NRL’s Twitter feed.