North Queensland hooker Jake Granville broke the Vodafone Warriors' hearts with a 78th-minute try to give his side a 28-24 victory in tonight's seventh-round NRL clash against North Queensland at 1300SMILES Stadium in Townsville.
The Vodafone Warriors had led the encounter since the fourth minute but they went into the final nine minutes just hanging on 24-22 and still had that edge as the 78th minute ticked over.
Yet again errors were hurting as they regularly handed the Cowboys possession and field position to ensure they were facing enormous defensive heat.
They were up to the challenge time and time again but twice inside the last 10 minutes Granville penetrated the Vodafone Warriors' goal-line defence with dummy half tries.
The heartbreaking finish followed a white hot start by the Vodafone Warriors as they fed off two North Queensland errors.
Forced to kick on the last from deep in their own end, Shaun Johnson pumped up a high kick towards halfway. Konrad Hurrell chased aggressively putting heat on Johnathan Thurston. He couldn't clean up, Bodene Thompson swept on the loose ball and fed Hurrell inside for a 40-metre run to the line. The video referees verified the on-field referee's recommendation and the try was awarded, Johnson converting to make it 6-0 after four minutes.
From the restart the Cowboys sinned by putting the kick-off out on the full, giving the Vodafone Warriors a penalty on halfway.
They hinted at going left but swept to the right edge instead, Johnson pulling the outside defenders in and creating room out wide to pop a one-handed pass over the top for Jonathan Wright to score his first try for the club. Johnson's conversion from the sideline was superb and the Vodafone Warriors were 12-0 up after seven minutes.
Quite unbelievably the Cowboys sent the restart dead on the full again giving the Vodafone Warriors another chance on attack. They couldn't make it pay this time, though, giving North Queensland the chance to relieve the pressure and settle into the contest.
Errors began to emerge in the Vodafone Warriors' game giving the Cowboys the invitation they needed.
With a good share of possession they were able to dictate the tempo and eventually had their first try through Granville in the 21st minute followed by another from centre Kane Linnett eight minutes later. With Thurston converting the first the lead had all but evaporated with the Vodafone Warriors ahead only 12-10.
On the flow of the game at that point the signs indicated more points were on the way for the home side. Threats were coming with both edges being tested but each time the Vodafone Warriors turned the Cowboys away.
Defending repeat sets they were then handed a get out of jail card not once but twice as the Cowboys made errors on attack. From the second Hurrell picked up and exploded into the clear, thwarted from going all the way only by the speedy Michael Morgan's chase. Playing the ball quickly the spread left was on with Johnson and Chad Townsend combining to put Solomone Kata in for his fifth try of the season.
Johnson had taken a leg knock and didn't come forward for the conversion attempt, the responsibility resting with Townsend instead. His shot from a reasonable angle wasn't one of his best but the Vodafone Warriors were able to go to halftime with a six-point lead.
They again gave away possession early in the second half to put themselves under pressure but regrouped.
Kata was try-bound only to have the ball dislodged as he was going over. It didn't matter. They received a penalty for the Cowboys being offside and from the repeat set the Vodafone Warriors at last found a way of feeding the Beast in the 49th minute.
Big Manu Vatuvei veered infield on a set play, Thomas Leuluai dropping off to the the left wing and he skittled defenders to put the ball down for his sixth try of the season; it was also the 141st of his career giving him the record outright for the most tries by a New Zealander in the competition.
But just as soon as Johnson's conversion had given the Vodafone Warriors a 12-point lead at 22-10 it was back to six points.
The restart came down close to the crossbar, the ball went loose and fullback Lachlan Coote had a gift try which Thurston converted to leave the score 22-16.
A Johnson penalty had the lead out to 24-16, an advantage they held approaching the last 10 minutes.
Critically, though, the Vodafone Warriors turned possession over again bringing the ball out of their own end. They sweated on Thurston having the big say but instead were caught out on their line when Granville drove over from dummy half for his second try of the night.
With Thurston's conversion it was a 24-22 ball game in the Vodafone Warriors' favour. Anxiety levels were ramped up and they went up another notch when they made another error in striking distance - only to find relief as the Cowboys then turned the ball over softly with a try-scoring chance on.
It was that sort of a contest. Ebb and flow, errors traded and coaching staff left with nerves jangling (not to mention the players out in the middle).
Into the last five minutes it went, the Cowboys threatening as ever through the remarkable Thurston who was orchestrating almost everything.
He had a foil in Granville, though, and at the death the livewire hooker wrestled his way over from dummy half yet again for his third try to give the Cowboys the lead for the first time in the match (and ultimately victory).
It was heartbreaking in the extreme for the Vodafone Warriors as they had fought against the odds to stay in front. Despite completing only 24 of 36 sets - compared to North Queensland's 31 from 36 - they kept defying the Cowboys only to falter in the dying moments.
The result leaves the Vodafone Warriors with a three wins-four losses record as they eye their first-ever Anzac Day match at home against a Gold Coast side in hot form. It doesn't get any easier.
Match details | 1300SMILES Stadium, Townsville
North Queensland Cowboys 28 (Jake Glanville 3, Kane Linnett, Lachlan Coote tries; Johnathan Thurston 4 conversions).
Vodafone Warriors 24 (Konrad Hurrell, Jonathan Wright, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei tries; Shaun Johnson 3 conversions, penalty).
Halftime: 16-10 Vodafone Warriors.
Referees: Gerard Sutton and Grant Atkins.
Vodafone Warriors | Tuimoala Lolohea; Jonathan Wright, Konrad Hurrell, Solomone Kata, Manu Vatuvei; Chad Townsend, Shaun Johnson; Jacob Lillyman, Thomas Leuluai, Ben Matulino; Bodene Thompson, Ryan Hoffman; Simon Mannering (c). Interchange: Nathan Friend, Dominique Peyroux, Sam Lisone, Albert Vete.