Penrith’s chances of playing finals football evaporated tonight as a resurgent North Queensland inflicted misery on the 6,611 hearty fans at Centrebet Stadium.
Johnathan Thurston led the Cowboys to a 36-4 win, while the Panthers were left licking their wounds as a season with so much promise just a month ago continued to slip away.
Boosted by the return of Lachlan Coote and Sam McKendry as well as the shock inclusion of Sika Manu, the Panthers simply couldn’t match it with the Cowboys, particularly up front, with the visitors laying a strong platform through the forwards.
The first half was an arm-wrestle, with the Cowboys crossing first through Antonio Winterstein in the 6th minute, and maintaining a 6-0 lead through until the 30th minute when David Simmons added to his try-scoring tally for the season.
The Cowboys held a 12-4 lead at the break, but the Panthers looked to still be in what was a scrappy contest – particularly following a strong return from Coote, who replaced Isaac John in the latter stages of the opening half.
North Queensland, however, simply dominated the second half – newcomer Kyle Feldt crossing to extend the lead to 18-4 before hooker Ray Thompson went on a try-scoring rampage – scoring in the 58th, 62nd and 69th minutes to secure an unlikely hat trick.
It was the second time this season that the Cowboys had put a big score on the Panthers – earlier this year, they won 30-0 at 1300Smiles Stadium.
In a further drama for the Panthers, it appeared that coach Ivan Cleary hooked halfback Luke Walsh with 20 minutes remaining. Walsh was taken off soon after a kickoff went out on the full and was replaced by Matt Moylan, who had been benched just minutes earlier.
Cleary said his side made too many errors, particularly in the second half.
“There were periods in the game where I thought we were certainly well in it but we just couldn’t capitalise… in the end I think that took its toll on our belief,” he said.
“It didn’t happen for us tonight… the second half was very disappointing.”
Cowboys coach Neil Henry admitted he was surprised by Penrith’s late team changes. He said he expected Lachlan Coote to play but was surprised when the side named McKendry and Manu.