This time, there was no one-point thriller.
But there was still no shortage of drama as a Johnathan Thurston-inspired North Queensland kept their NRL title defence on track, downing Brisbane 26-20 in extra time in Friday night’s sudden-death semi-final in Townsville.
Remarkably, the stage was set for the fourth-straight derby to be decided by a solitary point after the Cowboys locked up the scores at 20-20 in the dying moments of regulation time.
Brisbane looked set to hang on for a 20-18 win before Thurston banged over a 78th-minute penalty after Matt Gillett was placed on report for tripping the Cowboys’ playmaker.
The match went into extra time and someone had to step up – enter Thurston.
The Cowboys’ co-captain produced a sublime inside ball to set up Michael Morgan’s 85th-minute try that brought the 23,804-strong crowd to their feet.
Brisbane lost all momentum when fullback Darius Boyd knocked on from the kick-off in scenes eerily reminiscent to teammate Ben Hunt’s infamous grand final gaffe.
The Broncos never recovered as the Cowboys booked a preliminary final against Cronulla at Allianz Stadium.
It maintained North Queensland’s unbeaten finals record in Townsville, extending it to 7-0.
The loss snapped Brisbane’s six-game winning run and drew the curtain on Brisbane skipper Corey Parker’s career.
He finished with 347 first-grade, making him the fourth most-capped player of all time.
Brisbane looked to have avenged their 2015 grand final loss to North Queensland when a stunning 80m effort by winger Corey Oates caught a flagging Cowboys defence out and helped the visitors snatch a 20-18 lead in the 70th minute.
It stunned the Cowboys who had looked home when they jumped to an 18-14 lead after two tries in five minutes by centre Justin O’Neill.
Running off pivot Morgan each time, O’Neill danced his way through the defence in the 57th and 62nd minutes to quickly overturn a 14-6 halftime deficit.
North Queensland’s Kiwi Test star Jason Taumalolo was outstanding, amassing 272m in a remarkable turnaround since being left red faced after becoming embroiled in an alleged egg throwing incident.
The name on everyone’s lips at kickoff was shock Cowboys debutant Kalyn Ponga who almost scored with his second touch in a jinking run, only to be pinged by the referee for a shepherd.
The 18-year-old became the sixth player to make his debut in a final in the past 30 years after replacing winger Antonio Winterstein (ribs).
“I couldn’t be more proud of the boys the way they responded after the way we started,” Thurston said of Brisbane’s 8-0 lead after 11 minutes.
Thurston was inspirational despite battling a stomach bug.
But the Cowboys’ playmaker was more interested in saluting Taumalolo.
“He was outstanding. He was clearly disappointed with what happened last week,” Thurston said.
Parker was given a guard of honour by Cowboys and Broncos players as he walked off the field for the final time.
“I didn’t know they were going to do that. There is a huge amount of respect between the teams but that was much appreciated,” Parker said.
“I’m a bit numb at the moment but I know I am leaving the club in good shape.”
Broncos coach Wayne Bennett did not believe Gillett had produced an “orthodox trip” but did not want to blame it for the defeat.
Thurston was adamant, though, that Gillett should have been penalised.
“He stuck his leg out – he didn’t miss,” he said.
“It was unlike him to do that but the match review committee will have a look at it.”