Some second-half Johnathan Thurston magic was not quite enough for his team to finish over the top of the Roosters in a thrilling 26-20 result at Allianz Stadium on Saturday night.
When the Roosters streaked away to a 26-8 lead midway through the second half, a differential hit of 25 points or which would have sent the Cowboys below the Eels to last on the Telstra Premiership ladder looked a certainty.
Latrell Mitchell was again in irrepressible form, finishing with seven busts and a try, and Blake Ferguson produced one of his best matches of an impressive season with 238 metres, numerous tough carries and a try of his own.
But with the Roosters pulling away, retiring maestro Thurston delved deep into his bag of tricks to all but orchestrate the most unlikely of comebacks.
A powerful spell from Jason Taumalolo – in arguably his best game for at least two months – was just as crucial as the Cowboys rocked the Roosters late but couldn't quite find the killer blow.
Thurston's show-and-go to start the comeback was enabled by the threat of Taumalolo distracting the defence before the Tongan powerhouse drew a stack of defenders and offloaded close to the line for Gavin Cooper to close the gap to six.
Was this JT's last ever show-and-go?
Thurston had the ball on a string, kicking well (with good assistance from youngster Jake Clifford, who forced a couple of repeat sets) and passing with precision but some resilient Roosters defence enabled them to hold on and join the Storm on 30 competition points behind only the Rabbitohs.
The absence of Luke Keary impacted the Roosters' attack and their dominant left side in particular but Cooper Cronk – in his last ever match-up against his great mate Thurston – stepped up to control proceedings well.
Mitchell opened the scoring with a simple overlap try in the 12th minute shortly after the Cowboys gave up a costly escort penalty from a Roosters bomb.
A curious decision to take the two handed the Cowboys their first points shortly after, with Thurston having already shanked one attempted penalty goal earlier.
They hit the front with a savage Taumalolo run, with the Tonga long producing some handy acceleration to get into space before exploding through James Tedesco's brave attempt at a last-ditch ball-and-all tackle to put the Cowboys up 8-6 with a quarter of the contest gone.
Taumalolo steamrolls Tedesco to score
It didn't last long though; the Roosters produced one of the team tries of the year in the next set with Joey Manu starting the movement and finishing it off with a spectacular take from a Blake Ferguson high kick.
A quick brace of penalty goals stretched the home team's lead to six and then eight and despite Manu going dangerously close to a second, the Roosters held their 16-8 advantage through to half-time.
North Queensland enjoyed some attacking field position in the 10 minutes after the resumption but could make it count but the Tricolours had no such issues down the other end, with both wingers crossing within five minutes of each other to blow the score-line out.
Ferguson scorched past the Cowboys' sluggish left edge from a well-worked scrum play in the 50th minute before Dan Tupou crossed in the 54th from a Cooper Cronk bullet cut-out ball.
Manu flies for try of the season contender
A classic Thurston show-and-go in front of the Roosters posts added six points to the veteran's career points tally, taking him past Andrew Johns into third outright all time and closing the score back to 26-14.
The fast-finishing Cowboys remembered how to offload and produced some huge sets to pressure the Roosters and when Jason Taumalolo attracted a host of defenders yet still got an offload away for Gavin Cooper to score in the 65th minute the comeback was well and truly on at 26-20.
Match: Roosters v Cowboys
Round 21 -
Venue: Allianz Stadium, Sydney
The Cowboys simply refused to hand the ball over cheaply as their 100% completion rate lasted through their 30th set and beyond as they camped themselves at the Tricolours' line in the final 10 minutes with the Roosters having to produce some incredible goal line defence to maintain their lead.
Victor Radley trapped a Thurston grubber with four minutes to go and Tedesco produced a sublime cover tackle on a rampaging Coen Hess – sent into space by a Thurston pass, of course – before a forward pass meant the Cowboys' 34th possession was their first failure to complete a set and the home side held on for a thrilling win.
News and Notes: Johnathan Thurston kicked his 900th premiership goal and also overtook Andrew Johns to move to outright third in the all-time point-scoring list ... Gavin Cooper scored for the fifth game in a row... Blake Ferguson brought up his 14th try of the season to make 2018 the best try-scoring campaign of his career... Next week Cowboys host Broncos on Thursday night while the Eels take on the Dragons at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night. Crowd: 9721.