North Queensland have moved within 80 minutes of the unlikeliest NRL grand final appearance in modern history following a shock 24-16 semi-final win over Parramatta.
The Cowboys pulled off one of the biggest boilovers of the year in front of 41,287 at ANZ Stadium.
The Cowboys only snuck into eighth spot when St George Illawarra were beaten by Canterbury in the last round but will now take on the Sydney Roosters next Saturday for a spot in the season decider.
The Townsville-based side, effectively written off after co-captains Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott were ruled out for the year, continue to defy the odds.
Halfback Michael Morgan was outstanding, dictating terms with his kicking game before scoring the match-sealing four-pointer five minutes from fulltime.
The Eels melted under the pressure, making 13 errors and completing just 26 of 39 sets as a season which promised so much came to a disappointing end.
Cowboys lock Jason Taumalolo only solidified his reputation as the best forward in the competition, running for 236 metres from 21 runs as well as making 33 tackles.
After a first half marred by kicking errors, the Cowboys took the lead for the first time five minutes into the second half when the Eels allowed a Morgan torpedo to bounce and John Asiata snatched it out of the grasp of Will Smith.
What a time to score your first #NRL Try!
— NRL (@NRL) September 16, 2017
The visitors went further ahead when Te Maire Martin turned it inside for Coen Hess, setting off an all-in push and shove.
Eels hooker Cameron King appeared to lead with his knees as Hess grounded the ball and was lucky not to incur an eight-point try while Manu Mau’u struck Ben Hampton in the neck but was not punished.
Earlier, the Eels took a 10-6 lead into halftime thanks to two runaway efforts off North Queensland kicks.
Semi Radradra raced 100m to open the scoring in the seventh when Martin found him on the full before Smith scooped up a poorly-placed Morgan kick nine minutes before the break.
The match was hotly contested, with emotions running high on both sides.
Punches were thrown during a post-try fracas sparked when Eels hooker Cameron King put a late hit on the Cowboys’ Coen Hess following the latter’s try at the 52-minute mark.
— NRL (@NRL) September 16, 2017
Hope becomes disappointment for favoured Eels
The ghosts of Parramatta’s past came back to haunt the Eels on Saturday night as they capitulated in search of a drought-breaking title.
Parramatta coach Brad Arthur insisted before Saturday night’s semi-final with North Queensland that three decades of anticipation wouldn’t weigh down on the Eels.
But it appeared someone forgot to tell his players that.
The Eels looked every bit the team that played with disappointment on their minds as they went in search of their first title since 1986.
In their first home final in eight years, they completed at just 66 per cent – their third lowest rate of the year.
Time and time again they gave up opportunities to build pressure on the Cowboys’ line.
And the Eels almost gave away an eight-point try when Cameron King collected Coen Hess high.
Manu Ma’u was then lucky not to be sin-binned for an open-handed strike on Ben Hampton, which was eventually cleared by the bunker on review.
Their 2017 loss won’t hurt as much as those in 2001 and 2005, where they couldn’t convert the minor premiership into a title.
But it will still sting considering they reached the top four for the first time in 12 years, only to go out in straight sets.
– with Scott Bailey, AAP & TND