Moments after slotting the winning field goal Jonathon Thurston was hunched over Yvonne Sampson’s microphone. It’s not often someone effectively asks to put achieving your life’s goals into words. But after spending every single ounce of his bodily ability on the grass of Homebush Stadium, Thurston tried to rustle up one more effort to do what he had to. He took a deep breath, looked at Yvonne, and started.
Thurston wasn’t the only one. The game had launched like a rocket. Both sides scored brilliant tries early. Milford showed how well he fits into the Brisbane line up, picking up an Adam Blair offload to scoot around Michael Morgan. He put Reed into space who put Oates in. But soon after this there was an error, and a set play off the scrum saw Jake Granville put Justin O’Neil in for the Cowboys. We were only ten minutes in and we’d already had two tries.
As the game settled it became a battle of the forwards, played between the twenty-metre line of each side. As we’d identified earlier in the week, Tamou, Scott and Taumalolo proved a handful for the Bronco forwards, who weren’t able to dominate them in the way they’d done to the Roosters front-row. They made major metres on each set, and Taumalolo and Scott in particular continued to prove willing at the back end of the game.
The Broncos defence bent but rarely broke. Granville again showed how important he was to the Cowboys when he used the decoy run of Ben Hannant to keep the inside defence honest, allowing Tamou to sneak outside the right shoulder of Sam Thaiday to score. The Broncos responded before halftime when a rare Jonathon Thurston error combined with some lazy defence from Ben Hannant allowed Matt Gillet to put Jack Reed over. It was a horror moment for Thurston. Their 14-12 lead soon became 16-12 after half time.
As the game wore on it became more and more clear that the Broncos believed they could hold the lead. The only real attacking threat came from Hunt and Milford testing the fringes of the Cowboy defence with their athleticism, rather than attacking shape. They did this regularly at the back of sets, dragging the Broncos up the field into attacking position, only for Hunt to opt for conservative touch finders instead of attacking kicks.
It was clearly a tactic handed down from Coach Bennett. The Broncos were going to win this with defence. They had only 46 per cent of the ball, were outgained by over 500 metres, and saw each of the opposition forwards crack 100 metres gained. They made an ungodly amount of tackles in their own twenty metres zone in an attempt to tackle their way to the premiership. They came with moments of doing so.
The last twenty minutes was hectic collage of Cowboy raids on the Broncos line. The Cowboys moved the ball to the right, seeking to get Morgan on the outside of Milford. Morgan made it over the line once, but the Broncos continued to shut down that option. Reed shut down O’Neil on another foray. So the Cowboys worked to the left instead, Thurston probing away trying to find the right time to throw the ball across Gavin Cooper’s face to Kane Linnett. He found that moment with about twenty minutes to go, only for Linnett to grass the ball with the line open. Coote also got through and looked like he was going in but was pulled back for a double movement. At this point Thurston must have questioned if he would ever get his title.
With minutes to go both sides were gutted, stumbling around bent at the waist like exhausted boxers unable to throw another punch. Every time Hunt kicked the ball into touch, the camera would pan to the pained faces of Cowboys forwards who knew they had to get to the scrum as quickly as possible to stop the clock.
The Broncos defence-first approach almost worked. The Cowboys were stuck in their own half until a Ben Hunt penalty dragged them closer. Their last shot appeared to be in vain until Thurston escaped Adam Blair’s aggressive tackle attempt, pushed away from a tired McCullough and found Morgan in space.
It would be a brave person to say they could have predicted what was coming. Morgan found enough space around Milford, something he’d failed to for the previous 79 minutes and 55 seconds. The defence came in to help and Kyle Feldt suddenly found a pathway to the line past Justin Hodges’ desperate lunge. Thurston took minutes to take his shot, and when it missed I must confess I couldn’t imagine a more painful way for the Cowboys to lose. A single shot scrapping too much of the post.
But oh Ben Hunt. Last week we wrote so positively of him. His play against the Roosters showed he is a future great, capable of performing on the highest level against the best opposition. Today he had a bad day at the office, something that he’ll never forget.
When Thurston slotted the field goal that came from the set after Hunt’s error, pandemonium broke out.
Sometimes in sporting finales, the result is settled early, or the team so used to success that celebrations are muted. But this was not a celebration. It was an exorcism. It was cathartic, a man and his teammates who had been so close so many times before, who had spent every ounce of energy dragging themselves to the top of the mountain, screaming into the sunlight that for once shone down on them. It was breathless to watch.
When Thurston simply looked at Sampson and said “I’m speechless” 4 million Australians nodded in agreement. One of the great grand finals had just ended in the most dramatic fashion.
All we could do was watch and smile.