Without a doubt, last Saturday’s match between the Cowboys and the Sharks has to be one of the greatest played at 1300Smiles Stadium. If there was ever any doubt about whether the Cowboys perform best on their home turf, it was laid to rest by a 39-0 belting that somehow managed to make the Sharks still feel like the quintessential Wooden Spoon team despite making it to the first week of the finals. As with any Cowboys victory, a lot of it was down to Thurston, who landed a field goal right on half-time with his usual understated dexterity. At the same time, Saturday’s match was also a testament to Thurston’s generosity as a captain as well. Allowing the game to evolve around him without needing to put himself front and centre, he proved what makes him a great co-captain as much as a captain, letting Matt Scott step into the spotlight at just the right moments. In fact, you might say that Scott was the more dominant captain – even if Thurston is always the dominant presence – barging his way through 10 hit-ups for 113 metres in what has to be one of the best prop performances in the 2015 NRL season.
Thurston and Scott aside, the Cowboys have rarely shone quite so bright as a team this season as they did on Saturday night. After a foreboding match against the Broncos last week, Michael Morgan not only lifted his game but put in a staggering variety of moves that recalled his finals performance of 2012, seeming to make the prospect of a Cowboys premiership just that little more tangible. At the same time, Lachlan Coote’s left foot hasn’t had a better game this season, while even Scotty Bolton managed to pitch in for the third try, raising the Cows to 18-0 before the first half was even over. More so than in regular footy, finals football often hinges on key moments, seconds where you can feel the atmosphere change and the momentum move in favour of one team. The try awarded to the Roosters at the 51st minute of Friday night’s match was one moment, and on Saturday night it was Bolton’s moment in the spotlight that seemed to guarantee that this would be a Cowboys victory for the ages.
In part, that was because Bolton is usually a fairly quiet player, sticking in the second-row and leaving the fancy stuff to the big playmakers in the team. But it was also because that 18-0 threshold was a turning point last time the Cowboys met the Sharks in Round 22, except in that case it was the moment when Cronulla came from behind to rack up a 30-18 victory against all odds. When Bolton scored his try, everyone in the stadium must have been wondering whether it would go the same way again this time – and yet the sheer improbability of Bolton being the one to make the move also seemed to signal that the Cowboys had it under wraps as well.
In Round 22, that win from behind seemed to signal the Sharks as the ultimate comeback team, whereas last night it was clear that it was North Queensland who were going to feel like the comeback kings. Even if they haven’t ever reached the depths of Cronulla-Sutherland, the Cowboys have been so close to the premiership so many times that each time they return to finals week feels like something of a comeback. Similarly, for the first time in years North Queensland haven’t had a truly great game at 1300Smiles this season, so seeing them smash the Sharks on their home ground was like a victory for 1300Smiles as well, which has such a great collective ambience that it feels as if everyone there is supporting the Cowboys – 21000Smiles on Saturday – even if they’re wearing Sharks colours.
And what a sorry night it was for the Sharks. Love them or hate them, you have to concede that there’s something sympathetic about a team that have had so many setbacks from so many angles over the last half-decade. There’s always something a bit confronting about watching brilliant players shut out by the competition, and from a distance Gallen, Ennis, Fifita and Lewis might as well have been the Blues struggling against the Queensland spirit that made Origin III such a catastrophe for New South Wales earlier in the year. With Gallen off from the 27th minute and even Ennis turning down the niggle, the Sharks have never felt like such a survivalist team, battling for dignity more than anything by the time the second half was drawing to a close. While my heart’s with the Cowboys, then, part of me did want the Sharks to go out with a bit more panache, especially since it’s been such an achievement for them to reach the finals after such a roundabout couple of years, as well as four straight losses at the beginning of the 2015 season. Still, there’s also something exciting about the prospect of the first Cowboys premiership as well. Given the Bunnies’ surprise loss to the Storm last week, it’ll be fascinating to see how next week’s Cowboys-Storm clash plays out. For Queenslanders hoping for a truly Queensland final – Broncos v Cowboys – next Saturday’s match at AAMI Park will be the next best thing, with the two best units in the Maroons – Thurston and Cronk-Smith-Slater – squaring off against each other. For Cowboys fans, here’s hoping!