Wayne Bennett will be a finals spectator for the first time in 21 years after a Matt Bowen-inspired Cowboys terminated Newcastle's slim play-off hopes last night at Dairy Farmers Stadium.
North Queensland kept their top four hopes alive with a gutsy 22-14 triumph but just as significant were the repercussions for former Broncos mentor Bennett, as he watched his Knights' season officially flatline in Townsville.
Not since 1991, when his star-studded Broncos suffered a late fade, has master coach Bennett been consigned to spectator status for the business end of the season. But the seven-time title-winning coach will wake today with his remarkable finals streak over.
Cowboys counterpart Neil Henry is bracing for more important days after his side overcame a stirring Knights fightback to record their third consecutive win.
The victory saw the Cowboys temporarily move into the top four, although they will finish the weekend fifth if Souths beat lowly Parramatta as expected today.
It wasn't the Cowboys' most clinical display. The hosts bolted to an 18-4 lead after 27 minutes but were forced to hang on grimly after the Knights reduced the deficit to 18-14 by halftime.
The red-hot Bowen has been magnificent this season and he was the architect of one of the tries of the season last night. Defusing a bomb on his line, Bowen stepped his way through and linked with Anthony Mitchell, who positioned Brent Tate superbly for the Maroons winger to finish a breathtaking 95-metre movement and kick the Cowboys clear at 18-4.
Two Johnathan Thurston second-half penalties then got the Cowboys home to deliver the bullet to Bennett and his Knights' finals dream.
The second half was laced with spite, with Knights forward Alex McKinnon put on report for punching Kane Linnett in the 50th minute.
Playing for their season, the Knights stunned the home side by opening the scoring in the fourth minute. Winger James McManus leapt for a Jarrod Mullen cross kick and the Knights showed slick hands, with back-rower Robbie Rochow flicking the ball to halfback Tyrone Roberts, who batted it on brilliantly for Timana Tahu to cross in the corner.
But the Cowboys needed just five minutes to hit back, the talismanic Thurston taking an Anthony Mitchell pass and slicing through before converting his own try to give the hosts a 6-4 lead. The unheralded Mitchell was at it again in the 20th minute, taking on the Knights line and holding up a superb pass long enough to create a gap for the lethal Bowen to make it 12-4.
The punch-drunk Knights were awaiting the knockout blow. Instead, Cowboys forward Ashton Sims gave them a lifeline, dropping the ball from the kick restart. The blunder turned the tempo and the Knights were back in business with two tries in five minutes.
Within seconds of Sims' error, Tahu had his second try and when centre partner Dane Gagai crashed over on the Cowboys' left edge, Newcastle had whittled the deficit to 18-14 by halftime. But the Cowboys hung on after the break to prove they have the self-belief to be there when the whips are cracking.
Cowboys 22 (M. Bowen, B. Tate, J. Thurston tries; Thurston 5 goals) Knights 14 (T. Tahu 2, D. Gagai tries; T. Roberts goal). Halftime: 18-14. Sunday MailBy Peter Badel