FOR 60 minutes it looked like the North Queensland Cowboys would forever put to bed theory they are premiership pretenders without Johnathan Thurston.
But you should never discount the impact of a champion as defending premiers Cronulla pulled a rabbit out of the hat to escape with an 18-14 win in Sydney.
The Sharks produced a three-try blitz in 16 minutes against the gutsy Cowboys at Southern Cross Group Stadium to overrun a 14-0 deficit and rocket to the top of the NRL ladder.
North Queensland was so close to edging within a whisker of the NRL top four heading into a bye.
Instead, they will return to Townsville having lost three of five matches without four-time Dally M medallist Thurston and wondering what could have been.
Cowboys coach Paul Green lamented his side’s last-tackle options when the game was on the line, moments Thurston would usually execute with perfection.
“We just failed to get a good last play option on to relieve a bit of pressure.
“I think it was (a big enough lead). If we want to hand the ball over on halfway then 14 points is not enough.
“We just put ourselves under too much pressure. We were in a position to win that game.”
Thurston sat on the sidelines with a shoulder injury that has him in doubt for the opening game of the State of Origin series.
Judging by the performance of five-eighth Michael Morgan, maybe the Maroons won’t be in crisis if Thurston is ruled out of Origin I.
The last time Queensland entered the State of Origin arena without Thurston was 2004 when John Howard was prime minister and Facebook graced the internet.
His run of 36 consecutive Origin appearances is a record, but that streak is under threat and his omission would put a dent in Queensland’s dreams of an 11th series win in 12 years.
Morgan has produced two strong performances in the past fortnight to ink his name on the back of the spare Maroons No. 6 jersey.
In his 113th NRL appearance, Morgan made clutch last-tackle plays to keep the Sharks under pressure, fooled good friend Valentine Holmes with a clever 40-20 and put the ball on a dime for Kyle Feldt to give the Cowboys a shock 14-0 lead at the break.
Having made five appearances for Queensland off the bench, Morgan is accustomed to the Origin pressure-cooker and should not look out of place alongside mercurial halfback Cooper Cronk if he is required to start.
The only downside to Morgan’s performance was he went missing when the game was on line.
The Cowboys were twice tackled on the last play and Cronulla scored on the resulting set both times.
Morgan was nowhere to be seen when the Cowboys needed the ball to go deep into Cronulla territory.
Earlier, impending Blues five-eighth James Maloney showed his class to get the Sharks on the board with a slick show-n-go 10 minutes into the second half.
Jason Taumalolo came into his zone with a barnstorming 40m charge to take North Queensland deep into Sharks territory, but a poor pass on the last tackle by Ben Hampton saw Thompson caught.
In the resulting set Andrew Fifita stepped past Hampton and offloaded for Chad Townsend to score between the posts and make it two-point game.
Lachlan Coote was then caught on the last tackle and Sosaia Feki soared into the corner to give Cronulla the lead.
From there the Sharks controlled the match, showing why they were last year’s premiers and leaving the Cowboys to contemplate a missed opportunity without their star halfback.