Luke Brooks is suddenly right back in the Origin mix as his opposite No. 7, future immortal Johnathan Thurston, failed again to beat the Wests Tigers on Sydney soil.
Brooks scored a brilliant 90m try and somehow kept the ball alive to inspire a second as the Wests Tigers triumphed 20-12 in front of a healthy Thursday night crowd of 13,127 at Fortress Leichhardt.
Party time: The Tigers celebrate on their way to victory over the Cowboys on Thursday night.
While Tigers mullet man Mahe Fonua was devastating with every charge out in the centres – he ran for more than 215m – it was the halfback who owned the night.
Rated behind Nathan Cleary – next Thursday's rival – and housemate Mitchell Moses in the race for a NSW Blues halves spot, Brooks gave coach Brad Fittler plenty to think about just three weeks out from Origin team selections.
He kept his cool when the game was on the line midway through the second half, and was defensively rock-solid on his Cowboys – and Queensland – opposite Michael Morgan.
Brooks even put up a bomb with his right foot that eventually led to Esan Marsters' match-winner 10 minutes from time that would have impressed Sydney Swans great Adam Goodes, who enjoyed the Indigenous Round opener at the spiritual inner-west venue.
For all their ball and Brooks and Fonua terrorising the visitors down the left, the Tigers only led 8-6 at the break. Balmain great Larry Corowa spoke for everyone at the ground when he said in a half-time interview on the field that the Cowboys were always a chance with a champion like Thurston, whose brilliant career never featured a win over the Tigers in Sydney. He will retire knowing the pesky joint venture ruined his otherwise outstanding league CV. Thurston even quipped at the start of the season how much he hated playing at Leichhardt, where ''even the 12-year-olds spray me''.
The Tigers held on to the ball in the second half and the Cowboys didn't. The home side needed this one after three straight losses and will remain in the top four until at least Saturday.
The Cowboys, who were rocked by Scott Bolton's indecent assault charges at the start of the week, will now do it tough to sneak into September with just three wins in the opening 10 rounds. They host Sam Burgess and South Sydney next Saturday.
Penrith is entitled to be already sold out for next week's battle between Cleary, who is expected back from a knee injury, and Brooks. Both are fine players and even better men.
David Nofoaluma overcomes some desperation Cowboys defence for an early Tigers try.
Coach Ivan Cleary smiled when the first of what will be hundreds of questions over the coming days about coaching against his famous son.
"I don't think he's over the line yet, and I think he's got to get through a training session tomorrow,'' Cleary said. "He's got to get picked as well."
As for Fonua, Cleary summed it up best when he said he was the kind of player who often had 'both coaches holding their breath''.
"What we saw in him is what everyone saw tonight," Cleary said. "Tonight he had all the right moves. He was a threat constantly, and he was a presence as well. We moved him to the centres, and he certainly played his role in that win."
Brooks got the Leichhardt party started after a lacklustre opening 15 minutes when he took an intercept and raced almost the length of the field to score. The noise of the fans metres away was deafening.
Matt Eisenhuth tackles the Cowboys’ Te Maire Martin.
Benji Marshall finally had a grubber pull up and forced a dropout, and the Tigers were soon in again through Malakai Watene-Zelezniak.
Brooks had Morgan swinging off his back and snuck an offload for Fonua, who did likewise for Corey Thompson, who continued the remarkable passage of play for Watene-Zelezniak.
Te Maire Martin's try before half-time dulled the mood, and the game was far from over when David Nofoaluma's try out wide was almost immediately cancelled out by opposite Antonio Winterstein.
Marsters finally landed a penalty goal to give the Tigers a two-point lead, and when he showed good vision to step back inside and evade four Cowboys defenders to score, the Tigers were as good as home – at the home that plenty of supporters would love to see become their permanent one.
Cowboys coach Paul Green said the Bolton drama had not proven a distraction, and praised his players for the way they rallied around the forward. "Obviously it was a tough week for him personally, but he handled it well,'' Green said.
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