Brisbane centre Justin Hodges orchestrated a crucial 18-16 win over North Queensland on Friday night to keep the Broncos’ slim NRL finals hopes alive.
Hodges put on the winning try with just under seven minutes to go and veteran five-eighth Scott Prince cooly slotted the conversion to seal a dramatic comeback victory in Townsville.
The Queensland and Test centre’s influence in the lead-up to the four-pointer was also pivotal.
His cut-out pass down the left edge to Corey Oates – a combination which led to the 18-year-old winger scoring a 14th-minute try – released the pressure on Brisbane after a half of sustained pressure by the Cowboys.
In a game crucial to both teams’ seasons, the Broncos went up 12-0 in the first 15 minutes thanks to tries from Ben Hunt and Oates.
North Queensland winger Kalifa Faifai Loa put his team back in the contest four minutes before the half-time break with a crucial try and the Cowboys dominated after the break.
It was a cliched game of two halves and after being under the pump for most of the opening half, a 52nd-minute try to Gavin Cooper and some vintage Matt Bowen magic six minutes later gave the Townsville team the lead for the first time.
But just when the Cowboys looked set for a victory which would have kept their season alive, Hodges stepped up and delivered his team the win.
It wasn’t all positive for the Broncos – Oates was perhaps unlucky to be put on report for a high tackle on Cowboys halfback Michael Morgan, who appeared to fall into the contact.
North Queensland lock Dallas Johnson, who this week announced his retirement from the game at the end of the season, went off with an injured knee after falling awkwardly in a second-half collision.
Brisbane coach Anthony Griffin said the defensive effort down the middle in the second half kept them within four points and it proved the difference.
“They had us by the throat there for probably 30 minutes of that second half and to their credit, Thurston and Bowen just wouldn’t let us out,” Griffin said.
“I thought we obviously had the run of the first 20 to 30 minutes but I thought they then had the next 30 to 40.
“If we’d leaked any more than 16 (points) I think we were gone and that’s the story of the night for us.”
It was Brisbane’s first win in four starts and captain Sam Thaiday said he was proud of the effort to stay in the game after going behind.
“It’s been a few weeks since we’ve celebrated a win as a team but to really hang in there and fight for one is a good step forward into the next couple of weeks,” he said.
Under-pressure Cowboys coach Neil Henry said his right edge, down which all three Broncos tries were scored, had been hurt by Hodges and Oates and they had been made to rue missed opportunities.
“It’s a bit of a heart-breaking loss really, to get back into the game and dominate field position for large parts of the second half,” he said.
“And to not get on a loose ball or lose a bit of possession to them and we pay the price.”