The Cowboys scored three tries in three minutes to turn around a 26-12 deficit and win 28-26 late at Manly in one of the comebacks of the year but the win was soured by Reuben Cotter being ruled out of Origin II.
Tries in the 73rd, 74th and 75th minutes stole the game from the Sea Eagles, leaving the 4 Pines Park crowd in shocked silence, scratching their heads at how their side lost a game in which they were cruising.
It was a testament to the belief and resilience of the Cowboys, who chanced their arm on multiple occasions: with short drop outs, offloads and early shifts a feature of their play all night.
North Queensland – indeed, all of Queensland – were rocked before the game had even started by the withdrawal of Cotter in the warm-up with a suspected hamstring strain.
The lock was scratched from the game – replaced by 18th man Brendan Elliot – and after having scans in Sydney on Friday night, he has been ruled out for a month, meaning he will not only miss Game 2 of Origin but the series finale in Brisbane on Juky 13.
“He felt it go in the warm-up and he’ll go for a scan tonight,” said Todd Payten. “I think he’s bummed obviously with what’s happening this week and the missed opportunity for him.
“But I think he’ll go home, he’s got a newborn baby to look at and that’ll put things in perspective for him. I’m disappointed for the kid, he works so hard and he’s doing a terrific job, not just for us but for Queensland.
“I’m assuming (that he’s out of Origin). It’s going to be a fair stretch to get going in ten days. For a kid his size, he has to rely on speed and power that’ll hurt him with the hamstring.”
Tabuai-Fidow is also under a cloud as he failed a HIA test following a knee to the head from Morgan Harper. It looked careless rather than intentional, and was not punished at the time, but may see action from the judiciary later on.
Payten was impressed with his side’s resilience, even if he was not altogether pleased with some of the actions that had required them to require a comeback.
“I enjoyed the last seven or eight minutes,” said Payten. “We played tough, we hung in there and we were tested at different stages.
“We lost Reuben in the warm up, both back rowers from last week weren’t playing. We lost Hamiso halfway through and we just kept turning up for each other and got away with the win.
“All across the team, everyone kept moving and played some good footy. We build our game on competing this year and on the first try they scored, we weren’t competing hard enough.
“They scored three tries off kicks and we haven’t been doing that this year. They’re so valuable. They’re deflating for the defensive team and the attacking team get a huge lift. We scored a few ourselves in the end.
“I thought it was a real high-quality match, decent footy being played and two pretty handy teams having a crack.”
The Sea Eagles fans were shell-shocked. They had played so well, with Lachlan Croker enjoying a banner night in which he scored twice and set up another while kicking superbly.
Reuben Garrick, again, was excellent from fullback and managed 250m with ball in hand, while Jake Trbojevic made as good a case as possible for a late Origin inclusion with another committed effort, topping the tackle count.
“There’s a fair argument to say that after 72 minutes we were probably the better side,” said Des Hasler. We had the better run of the game. There’s so many situations, so many ways that we lost that game.
“But you have to do give credit where credit’s due, they kept hanging in and hanging in and they’ve got those individuals that can hurt you.
“I thought we played with a good tempo tonight. I make no excuses, we should never have lost that game and the players are really bitterly disappointed about it. Certainly, it’s something that we need to address. We should have closed that game out.”
Manly showed intent from the off. Their first try was about both their smarts and their effort: Kieran Foran kicked high and two Manly players got to the ball before Scott Drinkwater.
Neither could claim, but the ricochet went backwards to Toafofoa Sipley, who smartly returned the ball to Foran. The five eighth picked the perfect kick to Christian Tuipulotu to get over.
Drinkwater was increasingly struggling with the high ball. He missed another that Koula regathered to score, only for the bunker to find a knock on in the build-up from Haumole Olakau’atu.
The combination was renewed again, with Olakau’atu forcing an offload that Koula caught and scored, only for the bunker again to intervene.
The pressure was all one way. The Cowboys were intent in attempting late offloads that only occasionally came off, allowing Manly to control the game.
When North Queensland did finally get a good ball set, they continued to play expansively but were thwarted by a late jamming tackle from Jason Saab that forced a forward pass.
Manly were not making the most of their opportunities. After another Cowboys error in their own end, the Sea Eagles spread from the scrum base, Morgan Harper fended off Peta Hiku and flicked the ball to Saab, only for him to drop it into touch. Des Hasler exploded in the coach’s box.
He needn’t have worried too hard. Hiku missed a simple tackle from marker and allowed Harper to spring the line and break to the halfway line.
He slowed up as Drinkwater approached and found Garrick coming on the inside to streak away from Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and double the lead.
The danger of the second kick is one of the great truisms of rugby league, and it would strike for the second time in the match. Coen Hess rose high above Garrick to tap back towards Chad Townsend, and his boot found Valentine Holmes to get the Cowboys on the board.
There was still time for some controversy. With Manly kicking from a scrum play, Harper chased Tabuai-Fidow and caught him hard with a knee as the winger dove on the ball. He went for a HIA – from which he did not return – but Harper suffered no consequences.
The Cowboys began the second half in familiar fashion: a kick dropped under the posts, Andrew Davey failed to gather and Jeremiah Nanai did what he has been doing all year, dropping on a bouncing ball in the in-goal.
Manly matched them set for set. Aided by a penalty, they moved into position and kicked for the corner, with Croker dropping the ball on top of Taulagi, who was unable to stop Tuipulotu.
Manly had the bit between their teeth. Trbojevic put Foran through a hole, but his inside pass to Cherry-Evans was batted down by Jordan McLean.
Croker was having a great time. He pinged a 40/20 that got the Sea Eagles into great position and then collected one himself from Cherry-Evans. Garrick goaled for the first two-score lead of the night.
The second kick curse struck again. After Tuipuluto had rescued a last tackle play, Croker kicked through at the posts. Josh Schuster missed it completely, but to complete the chain, Croker was on hand to get to the ball first.
Few things could be more unlikely than a Croker double – except, perhaps, Croker completing a double by assisting his own try.
The Cowboys needed something fast, and got it. Nanai was again the architect, taking a trademark kick through the middle and shuffling the ball on to Reece Robson to reduce the deficit to eight.
It got yet shorter. Tom Dearden got Holmes down the left, he put it wide to Taulagi and the presumptive Queensland winger flicked the ball out the back to Connolly Lemuelu for a stunning try. Holmes kicked it and the gap was just two with five to play.
The pendulum was swinging everywhere. Nanai, usually so secure, dropped the ball from the kick off, but from the scrum, Cherry-Evans dropped the ball to Holmes who went 80m and stepped inside Saab put North Queensland in front for the first time all night.
Cherry-Evans attempted the two-point field goal with the siren gone, but the incredible had happened once, and would not happen again.