Gritty North Queensland Cowboys worthy NRL finalists as St George let slip golden opportunity

THE Cowboys have their deserved place in the finals and a reward for many weeks of backs-to-the-wall defiance.

The alternative, a team as limited and as prone to anxiety attacks as the Dragons were in their gold-ticket match on Sunday, would have been too much to accept.

The Cowboys have had a season to be proud of, seeing as Johnathan Thurston was able to play only seven matches and Matt Scott two.

It extends to at least Sunday’s elimination final away against Cronulla, a side to have beaten the Cowboys in their past four encounters.

The smoko rooms in North Queensland’s mines must have become a little quiet when the Dragons scored to take an 18-14 lead over Canterbury, 17 minutes from a win which would have bumped the Cowboys out to ninth place.

North Queensland had managed only two line breaks in their 20-10 loss to Brisbane on Thursday to set up a worrying weekend for the club and their supporters.

But at least in winning one of their last six matches they have played with more consistent grit and structure over that time than the Dragons and Raiders rivals.

Some footballers rise to the occasion when they need to execute pressure plays in vital matches.

Others cough up errors like Dragons centre Tim Lafai did twice in the last 10 minutes when the score had been 20-20.

Lafai somehow threw an offload forward in his own 20m zone to hand over the possession from which Bulldog Michael Liccha scored a soft try from dummy-half.

Graham would be exceptional

When the Dragons raided away in the last three minutes, there was one no-look pass over his head from Gareth Widdop and then another from Lafai, which bounced low before fullback Matt Dufty, who knocked on.

St George Illawarra won four of their last 12 matches, so will struggle for explanations why they failed for a fifth time in six years to make the finals.