Cowboys cop brutal reality check amid 'disappointing' NRL truth

The Cowboys hopes of playing finals footy were mercilessly destroyed on Saturday night.

Pictured left is North Queensland Cowboys coach Todd Payten.
Cowboys coach Todd Payten was filthy with his players after their dismal final round mauling by the Panthers. Pic: Getty

North Queensland coach Todd Payten has given his Cowboys players an almighty serve after their hopes of playing finals footy were mercilessly destroyed by Penrith in a 44-12 drubbing on Saturday night. The defending NRL premiers ran riot in a game the Cowboys simply had to win to ensure they finished inside the top eight and kept their season alive.

The Cowboys were blown away by the fast-starting Panthers, who knew a win would secure tham another minor premiership. Playing in front of a packed house at BlueBet Stadium, Penrith ran in five first half tries to blow the Cowboys out of the water, with the visitors looking like anything but a side fighting to keep its season alive.

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North Queensland did manage to score the first two tries of the second forty but any hopes of a miraculous comeback were extinguished as Penrith crossed for three tries in 10 minutes to complete the rout. A furious Payten couldn't hide his disappointment after the match, calling out all but one of his players for lacking the necessary fight against the defending premiers. Luciano Leilua was the only man spared the coach's wrath.

“When you’re playing a good physical team and you show any sign of weakness, they get real hungry and that first period after 20 minutes, the only real bloke I saw standing up physically was Luc,” he said. “We were shell-shocked.

"The boys were looking at each other waiting for someone else to do something when we needed to come together as a team and fight together, that was the hard part to watch. To go in at halftime like we did, with everything to play for and getting put on the back foot and not showing any real resolve was really, really disappointing and hard to cop.

"We had 17 plays inside our own 20 for five tries and that’s not good enough at NRL level, no matter who you’re playing. We sit here after 27 weeks and we’re going to watch finals, more than anything because we didn’t stop enough tries.”

Top-eight teams locked in for NRL finals

The result settles the make-up of this year's top eight, with the Sydney Roosters and Canberra both now locked in for the finals. In somewhat of a blow for the NRL and broadcasters, it also means Sunday's match between Cronulla and the Raiders - billed all week as a potential blockbuster final match to decide who plays finals - will now be a battle for hosting rights of an elimination final in week one.

Penrith's victory means they will now meet the fourth-placed Warriors in one qualifying final at BlueBet Stadium, while Brisbane will host third-placed Melbourne in the other. For the Panthers, a third minor premiership in four years was even more encouraging due to the performance of Jack Cogger - who's deputised for the injured Jarome Luai with aplomb.

Penrith's Jack Cogger was immense for the Panthers in the absence of regular playmaker Jarome Luai. Pic: Getty
Penrith's Jack Cogger was immense for the Panthers in the absence of regular playmaker Jarome Luai. Pic: Getty

Cogger was the star of the first half for the Panthers as he had a hand in each of the three first tries. The 26-year-old put Stephen Crichton over in the fourth minute with a long ball, repeated the dosage for Sunia Turuva 18 minutes later and put Liam Martin through a hole before halftime.

"I thought he was the best player on the field," Panthers halfback Nathan Cleary said. "Particularly the way he started. He just has a calm head on his shoulder. We combined and communicated well.

"As much as Romi is a loss, Jack has been playing well the whole year when he has filled in. It was no different tonight." Rookie hooker Luke Somerton and Cleary also bagged tries, while Brian To'o and Turuva finished with doubles.

The win guarantees Penrith a $200,000 pay cheque to be split between players and club, and preference of changerooms, jerseys and training timeslots at venues through the finals. The Panthers are now perfectly primed for a shot at the league's first three-peat in 40 years, with a near fully fit squad and hooker Mitch Kenny and second-rower Scott Sorensen set to return next week.

with AAP

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