A pat on the back from team-mate Justin Hodges signalled the end had come for Petero Civoniceva.
As North Queensland put the finishing touches on their impressive 33-16 NRL elimination final victory in Townsville last night, Hodges turned to his old friend with a bittersweet smile.
The Broncos never gave up, but in the dying moments, Civoniceva and his old mate Hodges knew it was all over.
“I just said ‘thanks for everything’, I have some great memories with this side,” Civoniceva said. “When I get home and unpack the football bag for the last time, no doubt it will be emotional.
“But all I can do is be grateful for my career. I did what I wanted to do when I was a kid — to be here 15 years later, I feel very lucky.”
In 2004, in a steamy Townsville, North Queensland abruptly drew the curtain on Broncos forward Gorden Tallis’ NRL career in the teams’ only previous finals clash.
Eight years later, the Cowboys again showed little sentiment for another Brisbane great, as Civoniceva’s 309-game career came to a shuddering halt, thanks to a five-tries-to-three win that included a hat-trick to halfback Michael Morgan.
Indeed, not much went to plan for retiring stalwarts. Cowboys veteran Aaron Payne may have played his last game, after limping off in the 11th minute with what appears to be a serious knee injury.
The eighth-placed Broncos were desperate to dig deep to try and add another chapter to the already amazing resume of 36-year-old Civoniceva, Australia’s most capped forward with 46 Tests and 33 Origins for Queensland.
“It’s a disappointing way to send him out, it’s a bit heartbreaking, eh,” Broncos skipper Sam Thaiday said.
“He has done a lot for the game of rugby league - he will leave a gap in our team, but I am impressed with the blokes coming through.”
Retirements might have dominated the pre-match talk, but the limelight was quickly stolen by livewire North Queensland fullback Matt Bowen in his 250th NRL game.
He latched onto a miracle Ash Graham pass to score the opening try in the fourth minute, before bringing the 21,307-strong crowd to their feet to set up another for centre Brent Tate in a spectacular 85m second-half effort.
“Every second weekend, my mum and dad come down from Hope Vale, but this time, there was a truckload — I don’t know where everyone will be sleeping tonight,” Bowen laughed.
It marked the fifth straight win for the Cowboys, who have booked a Friday-night showdown with defending premiers Manly, who thrashed them 42-8 in last year’s finals opening round.