The Cowboys joined the ARL in 1995 and ‘enjoyed’ some lean years when establishing the club. However, North Queensland has long been a Rugby League-mad region, and it was only a matter of time until they started to be competitive, and then dominate. Their last 5 years have been the most successful in the club’s short history, thus many of the faces that appear in this list have played during this time.
Picking players across eras is never an exact science. An author can do all of the research in the world and still never be 100% sure about the selections put forward. Sure, there are some certainties for every team of this nature, but let this not end the debate; let it start one.
The main criteria is that each player has been selected on the strength of their performances for the club in question (not representative football and not for other clubs). They may have only been at the club for a short time, but if they’ve made The Best 17 Ever, it’s because of the undeniable quality they produced during that time.
So let the debate begin!
1. Matt Bowen (2001-2013)
Little Mango. Coming through the junior system as a diminutive halfback, the Cowboys used his blinding acceleration and cat-like footwork to great effect from fullback, where he played most of his career. Small in stature but big in heart, Matt Bowen represented the Cowboys, Queensland, Australia and his people with great distinction and will be remembered as a great advertisement for how size doesn’t matter in Rugby League; it’s all about desire and skills. Mango was blessed with both.
2. Matt Sing (2002-2006)
Matt Sing was an established representative winger by the time he signed with the Cowboys in 2002, and it’s no coincidence that the club suddenly became more competitive the moment he joined. He scored a memorable hat-trick in the club’s first ever finals game, a win against the far more fancied Canterbury Bulldogs. While he is well-regarded as a try-scorer, it’s his defensive deeds that he is best remembered for; revolutionizing goal-line defence with his remarkable ability to get his body wrapped around the ball and hold the attacker up over the line.
3. Paul Bowman (1995-2007)
Bowman was the kind of player that typified the spirit of the Cowboys in their formative years; a no-nonsense local junior who tackled hard and lead with actions, not words. Bowman made his first grade debut in 1995 but didn’t get regular opportunities until 1999 when he won his first of 3 Player of the Year awards for the club. He is held in such high esteem that the club’s player of the year is awarded the Paul Bowman Medal.
4. Willie Tonga (2009-2011)
Injuries, unfortunately, robbed Tonga of his best years, but at his peak, he was the equal of any centre on the planet. Known for his speed and his ridiculous footwork (it seemed like he was able to step past a defender in mid-air), Tonga played 60 games for the Cowboys, as well as reigniting his representative career during his time at the club.
5. Brent Tate (2011-2014)
This was a tough spot to pick. Do we go with Ash Graham, Ty Williams or Antonio Winterstein; men that have piled on the tries in a Cowboys jersey? What about Kyle Feldt? Yes, he’s young and inconsistent, but he’s also a ridiculous talent and without his strip with a minute on the clock, then his try in the corner, then his towering kick-off, the Cowboys don’t win their first Premiership. But how do you ignore Brent Tate? Tate has remarkable talent himself, and the heart of a warrior; he despised losing. Tate’s arrival at the Cowboys helped them to turn a corner and start making finals again, and all of that after what should have been a career-ending neck injury. What a player!
6. Michael Morgan (2010-Current)
The new golden boy of the North, Morgan has been used in a variety of positions across his young career, but the number 6 jersey fits him well in this team. Time will certainly tell just how great Morgan can be, but if his 2017 season is anything to go by, if the Cowboys can hang on to his signature long-term, life after Thurston is looking alright.
7. Johnathan Thurston (Captain) (2005-Current)
Never has there been a more significant moment in Cowboys’ history than the signing of JT. Arguably the greatest player of the modern era, he was signed to the club after being a backup half at the Bulldogs (playing off the bench in their 2004 Grand Final victory). He quickly became a staple in the halves for the Cowboys, then Queensland, then Australia, with his extraordinary skills and likeable personality making him the golden boy of modern day Rugby League.
8. Matt Scott (2004-Current)
The stocky bloke from the bush with humility for days; Matt Scott took every inch of talent in his body and turned himself into the best Prop of the last 10 years. A leader of men who is widely respected by people throughout our great game, Scott will go down in history as one of Queensland’s greatest Props.
9. Aaron Payne (2002-2012)
When watching Aaron Payne as a young player in reserve grade (playing halfback), you knew there was something about him. He had plenty of skills, but what made him stand out the most was his ‘never say die’ attitude, always chasing hard, tackling hard and running hard. His ethic translated well to first grade, often starring for the Cowboys from dummy half in a career that spanned more than a decade. He surely would have played representative football if it weren’t for Cameron Smith.
10. James Tamou (2009-2016)
A big man with surprising pace, Tamou made his first grade debut with the Cowboys after playing lower grades at the Roosters. Observant fans will forever be thankful to Tamou, who found his front and fought for a quick play-the-ball, which led directly to Thurston’s Premiership-winning field goal. Tamou played 170 games for the Cowboys before joining the Penrith Panthers on big money.
11. Luke O’Donnell (2004-2010)
Recruited from the Wests Tigers as an up-and-coming back rower known for his uncompromising approach to the game, O’Donnell quickly became a fan favourite in the North, leading the charge to the finals and becoming a representative player himself. O’Donnell, who is a remarkable physical specimen, was an intimidating figure in the Cowboys’ pack; something the club needed to take the step from competitive to challengers.
12. Gavin Cooper (2006 & 2011-Current)
Cooper is one of those guys that, while an impressive athlete with strength and speed, his greatest asset is how he does all the little things right. Cooper is a leader, captaining the Cowboys to a Grand Final in 2017 in the absence of Thurston and Scott, and he never plays a bad game. He’s formed one of the league’s most lethal partnerships with Thurston, running that outside-in line on the left-edge to great effect throughout his career.
13. Jason Taumalolo (2010-Current)
Still just 24 years of age, Taumalolo is such a remarkable footballer that he staves off challenges from the likes of Travis Norton and Dallas Johnson for this position.A human wrecking ball with an impressive motor and wonderful footwork, the world watches on to see just how great this man can be.
14. Paul Rauhihi (2003-2005)
Unable to get a regular starting spot at the Bulldogs, Rauhihi moved to the Cowboys and was immediately made a senior member of the club. Rauhihi led from the front row and had a neat offload at his disposal, which he used to great effect.
15. Travis Norton (2004-2006)
Another recruited from the Bulldogs to add experience to the Cowboys line-up, Norton captained the club to their first ever Grand Final in 2005, which they lost to the Tigers. A hard-working lock with some neat ball skills, Norton played 5 Origin games for Queensland.
16. Jake Granville (2015-Current)
While perhaps not known for giving the best service from dummy half, Granville contributes to the Cowboys’ success with his speed around the ruck and work ethic in defence. While Thurston won the Clive Churchill medal in 2015, Granville can consider himself unlucky to be overlooked, as he was arguably the best Cowboy on ground that night. His speed and versatility make him a valued member of this 17.
17. Carl Webb (2005-2010)
Cursed with inconsistency; on his night, Webb was the most destructive forward in the league. In this side his role would be to give a high impact performance from the bench, and you’d be hard-pressed finding a Cowboy to do that role better. Maybe if we come back to this list in a few years the name Coen Hess might appear instead.
And that’s the team, not too bad, huh? How would they go against other teams named in this series? Do the men from the North have the ability to beat the rest? And who did we miss? Let us know in the comments below and stay tuned for the Best 17 Ever for all the other clubs.