Johnathan Thurston has been sent off a hero in thrilling circumstances before the biggest crowd for nine years at Cbus Super Stadium – and much of it was from his own doing in the 323rd and final game of a magnificent 16-season NRL career.
The Cowboys stormed home from 18-6 behind at half-time to beat the Titans 30-26 in a game that had it all and defied the standing of the two teams in the bottom four of the ladder.
They made it a fitting occasion before a sell-out crowd of 26,681.
And Thurston was the commander-in-chief.
Two of the Cowboys' four tries came from pin-point Thurston kicks, but he also twice gave his team possession from big defensive hits on a prop Ryan James and halfback Ash Taylor. In between he played one of the best games of his tough final season before an incredible atmosphere with half the crowd obviously – if not regular North Queensland fans – Thurston and Cowboys devotees for a night.
Thurston fought back tears during an on-field presentation and signed off, typically, with: "It has been a pleasure to perform and play in front of you".
JT reflects after signing off a winner
"I've grown into it [being a role model] and it's something I really enjoy," an emotional Thurston said after his final full-time siren.
"I'm now giving back to make this world a better place.
"Rugby league has given me so much but I have been also able to make a difference throughout the community and I understand that role more since that session in 2010."
And then Thurston deflects discussion to those he is grateful to.
"I'm very thankful for the amount of support I have been shown this year, especially by opposing teams.
"It's been overwhelming and humbling at the same time. It's a year that I won't forget."
The omen didn't seem right when the crowd, prompted by a local radio request, stood for a minute of applause in the seventh minute to recognise the status of JT's No. 7 jersey in a wonderful gesture.
Thurston said in a midweek radio interview when he heard of the plan, that he hoped he wasn't behind the try-line when it occurred. Unfortunately his fear was realised.
The try came through the Gold Coast's rookie of the year contender AJ Brimson who beat Matt Scott and Ben Hampton with pace from 20 metres.
The hosts were in again through Kane Elgey who scored an incredible try when he grubbered from 10 metres, the set after gaining a line-drop out from a similar kick, and patiently forced the ball at the bootlaces of Ben Hampton and Kyle Feldt. Taylor added the extras for a 12-0 lead after 16 minutes.
Shaun Fensom brought the Cowboys into the game when he crossed in the 26th minute. The Titans had been defending incredibly well and had held Jason Taumalolo out only minutes earlier when he looked set to score, so it was against the trend when Fensom crossed for a soft try off an inside ball from Jake Granville near the line.
Thurston converted for 10-6 but the joy was short-lived when Mitch Rein dummied at dummy-half two metres from the try-line and dived over. Taylor's conversion made it 18-6 at the half-time break.
Match: Titans v Cowboys
Round 25 -
Venue: Cbus Super Stadium
Four minutes into the second half the substantial Cowboys contingent in the crowd went up in unison when Hampton scored off a Thurston kick, and the fairytale started to gather shape.
Thurston kicked left and Gavin Cooper deflected the ball back to Gideon Gela-Mosby who passed back to Hampton doubling around on the outside. Thurston converted to another massive roar for the Cowboys to be within a converted try at 18-12 behind.
Soon after Taylor kicked a 30-metre penalty goal, incredibly to a large boo from much of the crowd on his home ground, to make it 20-12.
The Cowboys narrowed the gap again when Hampson crossed for his second try after brilliantly scooping up a pass from John Asiata that bounced at his toes. Thurston converted or 20-18.
By this stage the Cowboys had all the momentum and the juggernaut could not be stopped.
They grabbed the lead for the first time from a 70th-minute try, set up by Thurston. He ran to beat a defender who charged at him then put in a sublime chip kick and his left-edge partner in crime, Gavin Cooper, outleapt two Titans to snatch ball and score. Thurston converted for 24-20 to a deafening roar, meaning there were nine minutes for his mates to help him hold on for the fairytale finish.
JT to Cooper: one final time
Ironically it was Thurston's opposing half, who wants to emulate Thurston one day, who sealed the game for the Cowboys. Taylor, who had performed well for the first 60 minutes, forced a play down the short side on the last tackle and threw a cut-out pass meant for Anthony Don.
Instead it was intercepted by Gela-Mosby who ran 60 metres to score under the posts. Thurston's conversion made it 30-20.
A Taylor long ball to the right finally paid dividends when he found Lee who put Don into the clear, and he threw an outstanding lofted ball back to Lee who skipped away from 15 metres to give the Titans one last hope of snaring a victory.
But the Cowboys held on for two more tackles, and the crowd went wild as they realised an Immortal in waiting, and perhaps the most popular player of all time, was going to savor a final moment to remember forever.
News and notes: Gavin Cooper has become the first forward in history to score a try in nine successive matches after touching down from a Thurston high kick … Bryce Cartwright was back in the Titans side but was brought on with only seven minutes remaining … the Titans finished their season with six losses from their last seven games at home …. the Cowboys have won their past seven games against the Titans ... the crowd of 26,681 was the biggest at Robina since 26,453 attended the clash with the Dragons in round 16 2008, making it the third biggest crowd for a home match.