North Queensland left listless Newcastle languishing in second-last spot on the NRL ladder with a ruthless 28-2 victory at Townsville Stadium on Monday night.
After the emotional high of their 30-0 victory against Cronulla eight days earlier, which was inspired by injured teammate Alex McKinnon, the Knights suffered a letdown against a Cowboys side determined to end a three-game losing streak and kick-start their own season.
Led by playmakers Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan, the Cowboys ran in five tries and kept their own line intact in their most complete performance this year to leave the Knights and Sharks bringing up the rear with just one win each.
Newcastle's for and against difference of minus 32 is only marginally better than Cronulla (minus 45).
The Knights were their own worst enemies against the Cowboys, making too many mistakes to compete for 80 minutes. There will be no let-up as they hit the road again to play the Raiders in Canberra on Saturday, though five-eighth Jarrod Mullen is rated a good chance of returning from a pre-season hamstring injury and making his first appearance for the year.
Newcastle players were in good spirits after being told earlier in the day that McKinnon, recovering from spinal surgery, had been transferred by air ambulance from The Alfred Hospital in Melbourne to Sydney's Royal North Shore Hospital.
The Knights made that news public with a late-afternoon statement on their website and to media outlets. "Alex McKinnon has been transferred from Melbourne to a Sydney hospital today. Alex is in a stable condition," the Knights statement said. "The club again requests Alex and his family's privacy is respected at this time."
The Knights took that positive energy into the game, hitting the ball up with gusto and determination to establish early field position and took a 2-0 lead from a Tyrone Roberts penalty goal in the seventh minute. The visitors had chances to post further points but squandered them by making unforced errors.
The Cowboys retrieved possession in the 10th minute when a dummy-half mix-up left Robbie Rochow playing the ball to no-one, allowing Brent Tate to recover it. Four minutes later, Beau Scott's offload created an attacking chance on the left edge but centre Joey Leilua pushed a pass meant for James McManus into touch. Kade Snowden spilled Michael Dobson's pass in the 18th minute and another opportunity went begging, and that sparked Johnathan Thurston into action.
The champion Queensland and Australian playmaker created three tries in eight minutes to give the Cowboys a 16-2 lead at the break.
Thurston's well-weighted chip kick to the corner put right winger Matthew Wright across for a try on his Cowboys debut, then Thurston's pass for halfback Robert Lui set up a try out of nothing for Tate three minutes later.
After Lui squeezed between two Knights defenders, his pass cannoned off Michael Morgan's thigh and into Tate's waiting arms as he strolled over to score. Thurston stamped his class on the contest again five minutes later with a wrap-around play to pass behind two decoy runners for Morgan to touch down. The Knights threatened to post their first try on the stroke of half-time but fullback Darius Boyd spilled a pass close to North Queensland's line.
The mistakes kept coming in the second half as Roberts fumbled a pass in the 44th minute then compounded the error by conceding a penalty for a high tackle on Gavin Cooper less than a minute later. Cowboys second-rower Jason Taumalolo went within centimetres of scoring a spectacular try in the 46th minute when he almost reeled in Lui's grubber but he lost control as he tried to reach back and ground it inside the dead-ball line.
From the goal-line drop-kick restart, the Cowboys continued to mount pressure. Boyd saved a try by tacking Thompson and holding him up over the line in the 48th minute but it only delayed the inevitable as Morgan crawled over the line to recover his own grubber and score at the end of the set.
Thurston stretched the lead to 22-2 when his conversion attempt went in off the left-hand upright.
The Knights conceded four straight penalties as they tried desperately to stay in the game, earning a brief reprieve when the Cowboys lost the ball in the shadows of Newcastle's posts. Though he was denied earlier, there was no stopping Thompson in the 62nd minute when he darted out of dummy-half and away from some tired defenders to score North Queensland's fifth try.
Cowboys back-rower Tariq Sims was reported for a late tackle on Roberts in the 79th minute.
- Fairfax Media
How do you think Sam Burgess will go in union?Related story: (See story)