Michael Morgan put on a show in front of his State of Origin coach Kevin Walters as he spearheaded North Queensland to a 30-14 NRL win over Canterbury.
Morgan set up four tries and scored the Cowboys’ other, as they put on their best attacking display since May 2012 without Johnathan Thurston.
But it could have come at a cost, with Lachlan Coote assisted up the tunnel in the final minute with an apparent ankle complaint in his return match from a calf injury.
Morgan’s performance could not have come at a better time for the five-eighth, a week-and-a-half out from the Maroons’ team announcement and with Walters watching in commentary.
Queensland bench utility Morgan has largely been forgotten in the debate surrounding who could replace Thurston (shoulder injury) at No.6 if he is ruled out of the State of Origin opener on May 31.
However, on Thursday night Morgan put forward a case that he is just as capable as the likes of Anthony Milford and Daly Cherry-Evans.
His kicking game was sublime, three times he grubbered for tries while he also helped opened the scoring for North Queensland with a pinpoint perfect cross-field boot for winger Kyle Feldt in the seventh minute.
Coen Hess was the biggest beneficiary of Morgan’s play, twice latching onto grubbers to score – the second rower now equal top of the NRL’s try scorers list with eight.
Morgan was also dangerous with ball in hand at ANZ Stadium, making the most of a massive territorial advantage to dance through two Canterbury defenders to score the visitors’ second try.
It marked just the first time the Cowboys had scored 30 points without their star playmaker Thurston in five years, or 14 games of absence.
They also did it without front-row powerhouse Matt Scott – who they have lost for the season with a knee injury – and put them back in the top eight, in place of Canterbury.
Meanwhile, the Bulldogs were virtually out of the match by halftime when they went to the sheds down 18-0.
They scored two second-half tries through winger Kerrod Holland – including one while Cowboys’ halfback Ray Thompson was sin-binned for repeated infringements on his own line.
Holland then brilliantly set up Danny Fualalo to score a sensational team try and reduce the margin to 10 with nine minutes to play.
However, when Morgan kicked home for Ben Spina to cross in the 75th minute, any faint hopes of a Canterbury comeback were over.
“He certainly didn’t do (his Origin chances) any harm,” Cowboys coach Paul Green said of Morgan.
“He stepped up tonight and ran the show and did a great job.”
Green also confirmed that Coote’s ankle problem was not serious after he had twisted it.
Canterbury mentor Des Hasler was frustrated by a second-minute decision to deny Holland the game’s opening try, after a questionable obstruction call on Josh Jackson by the bunker.
“I though the first one was a 50-50 call for the obstruction on Josh Jackson try – I’ve seen worse,” Hasler said.
“But they’re not the reasons we lost the game.”