MATT BOWEN taught us you can grow knee cartilage in a petri dish. On last night's evidence in the first elimination final against rivals Brisbane, you can grow premierships in them too.
Playing the 250th game of an NRL career that seemed to be over more than once, Bowen was nothing short of dazzling as North Queensland ended Brisbane's season and the decorated career of prop Petero Civoniceva. The 30-year-old fullback scored the Cowboys' first try, kicked for their third and beat two defenders cold to set up their fourth before finishing with a field goal in a 33-16 win before 21,307 fans, setting up a qualifying final appointment with defending premiers Manly at Allianz Stadium on Friday.
The stands were full of members of the Bowen family. ''Every second week, Mum and Dad come down,'' he said. ''This time there was a truckload. I don't know where I'll be sleeping tonight. We'll be all dogging up on the floor somewhere.''
Not even the great Johnathan Thurston could outshine his foil in a commanding, entertaining performance which featured a hat-trick to halfback Michael Morgan. It was 18-0 at half-time and 26-6 with 16 minutes left before the Broncos made it somewhat more interesting with consecutive touchdowns to captain Sam Thaiday and winger Dale Copley.
Winger Ashley Graham looked like being tackled over the right touchline - before an amazing piece of play. Graham lobbed an infield pass with his entire body out of bounds and airborne, Bowen on the spot to flash over. Brisbane had two scoring chances over the next six minutes - and missed out on both.
First centre Jack Reed skilfully fielded five-eighth Corey Norman's bomb in intense traffic but what would have been the final pass before a Broncos touchdown was intercepted by Bowen. Before long, the Cowboys extended their lead. Thurston's bomb was dropped by Broncos fullback Josh Hoffman and Morgan capitalised to scoop up the error and score. Thurston made no mistake with his close-range conversion attempt, and the scoreboard ticked over to 10-0.
Andrew McCullough's 40-20 gave Anthony Griffin's men some territory but they did nothing with it. Instead, Reed was pinged for blocking Brent Tate and Thurston opted for a 12-0 lead from a penalty goal.
That decision seemed contentious - for six minutes. That's the period that elapsed before Morgan scored another eye-catching, skill-laden try. Bowen's little dab bounced tantalisingly in Hoffman's face - before the Cowboys star reached out with his right claw, snatched it out of the air, and raced to the try line. If the scoreline at that stage was an insult to Brisbane, then injury was soon added to it. Hoffman was struggling with a rib injury, Copley's leg was causing a pronounced limp and Reed had a head knock. The Cowboys lost hooker Aaron Payne to a leg injury early and he did not return.
Brisbane's 46th minute try put the Cowboys on the back foot, before a Thurston penalty and a Tate try steadied the ship for the victors.
Coach Neil Henry said the Cowboys were better placed than 2011 ''given that we limped into the finals last year''. ''We know it will be a tough game against the defending premiers so. We'll get ourselves ready.''
Brisbane counterpart Griffin said: ''Referees didn't cost us the game tonight. They got in the way a bit but they didn't cost us the game.''
NORTH QUEENSLAND 33 (M Morgan 3 M Bowen B Tate tries J Thurston 6 goals M Bowen field goal) bt BRISBANE 16 (D Copley C Norman S Thaiday tries P Wallace 2 goals) at Dairy Farmers Stadium. Referee: Matt Cecchin, Gerard Sutton. Crowd: 21,307.