The NRL is filled with an abundance of traditional rivalries and local derbies. Such rivalries include Sydney Roosters vs South Sydney Rabbitohs, Parramatta Eels vs the Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs, St George Illawarra Dragons vs Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks and recently the Brisbane Broncos vs Melbourne Storm.
Arguably, none of the above compare to the Brisbane Broncos vs North Queensland Cowboys rivalry. The uniqueness of the Sunshine State derby is best exemplified by the results in which many recent matches have needed extra time to decide a winner.
The Queensland Derby started off as being rather one-sided, with the Broncos completely dominating their early encounters. The Cowboys felt stronger about the derby than the Broncos, with the Broncos consistently chasing titles, whereas the Cowboys were constantly scrambling to avoid the wooden spoon. All of this changed when the two teams met in the semi-finals of 2004.
With this Thursday being the 48th installment of the Queensland Derby, as well as being one of the more crucial clashes between the two teams, it seems rather fitting that we explore the background of this rivalry and delve deeper into its uniqueness.
1995-2003 – Early Years and Bronco Dominance
This period was completely dominated by the Broncos, in which they yielded 16 victories out of a possible 18. The other two matches had resulted in draws. One draw was unexpected as it occurred at the Broncos’ old home ground at Queensland Sport and Athletic Centre (then known as ANZ Stadium) when the Cowboys were near bottom whereas the Broncos were at the top of the ladder. The other draw occurred in Townsville in 1999 where the Broncos had been out-of-form while the Cowboys were unsurprisingly struggling. Yet in that match, the Cowboys were less than one minute away from a breakthrough win before a last gasp converted try in the corner. This meant that they had to wait a few more years before they would taste success against “big brother.”
These years were when the Broncos were consistently competing for titles. Conversely, the Cowboys were struggling, having not made the finals even once and finishing with the wooden spoon on three occasions. Highlighting the importance of the rivalry to the Cowboys, compared to the Broncos, is the average attendance at matches between the two teams. Any home game for the Cowboys would attract very large crowds, whereas attendances at Broncos home games against the Cowboys would be comparatively modest. The Broncos were the most supported team in Queensland, meaning their supporter base extended into the North Queensland region. As such, some fans in North Queensland were unsure whether to support the local team, who were comparatively weaker than the successful out of town team.
2004-2007 – First Cowboys victory, finals appearances and inroads
However, 2004 would be the year of change. The Cowboys would make the finals for the first time and would cause an upset in their finals match against eventual premiers the Bulldogs, winning 30-22. Conversely, the Broncos would lose 31-14 to the Storm, meaning the two teams would face off against each other. The game was held in Sydney as a Broncos home game however in an act of total goodwill by the Broncos, they allowed the match to be transferred to Townsville, meaning that the North Queensland supporters would experience a finals atmosphere in their backyard. The match finished with the Cowboys breaking through for their first ever win against “big brother,” prevailing 10-0. This match signalled the end of not only the Broncos’ season, but the playing career of North Queensland product Gorden Tallis. The Cowboys would eventually go down to eventual runners-up, Sydney Roosters in the next week.
2005 saw the Broncos gain revenge over little brother, by winning both their encounters that year. It was also this year where attendances at the Broncos home games against the Cowboys would attract near sell-out crowds. However, the Cowboys would progress all the way to the grand final, eventually succumbing to the Tigers 30-16. That final saw the majority of Queensland lend their support to the Cowboys.
2006 was the year in which the unexpected would happen between the two sides as the Cowboys triumphed in both meetings between the sides. However, the Broncos would eventually become Premiers, while the Cowboys would miss out on the finals by one victory.
In 2007, they picked up one win apiece against each other, with both picking up the bragging rights away from home.
2008-2010 – Reassertion of dominance by the Broncos
The years of 2008, 2009 and 2010 would see the Broncos reassert their dominance over the Cowboys, by prevailing in all of their encounters. However, unlike the early years, the majority of the matches between the two sides were relatively close. It was also during this period in which the Broncos would miss the finals for the first time in their history, in 2010.
For the Cowboys, they missed the finals during these years and were perilously close to winning the wooden spoon in 2010 before the Storm were penalised for breaching the salary cap. However, much good can come from suffering, and this was the last year in which the Cowboys would miss the finals to date.
2011-present – Rivalry of intrigue
Since 2011, the Cowboys have participated in all finals series, whereas the Broncos have missed the finals once during this period, in 2013.
2011 saw the Cowboys snap a seven match losing streak by surprising the Broncos in the first round with a 16-14 victory in Brisbane. However, the Broncos would atone for that loss, prevailing 36-16 in Townsville, in what was a milestone match for Broncos legend Darren Lockyer.
2012 saw the Cowboys win all three of their matches against the Broncos, including their elimination final meeting. They were able to hold the Broncos scoreless during one of these victories. However, the Cowboys would be eliminated from the finals by the Sea Eagles in very controversial circumstances.
The Broncos would get one back over “little brother” by winning both of their encounters with the Cowboys in 2013. However, this was not enough, as they would miss the finals altogether. A late surge saw the Cowboys sneak into eighth place and qualify for the finals. However, they would once again be eliminated in very controversial circumstances, this time against the Sharks.
2014 saw the two teams face each other in the regular season, as well as the finals. Both teams would emerge triumphant at home during the regular season before the Cowboys eliminated their Queensland rivals in the finals. Yet in their semi-final against the Roosters, they would once again be the victim of massive controversy.
2015 proved to be the year of all years, in regards to the Queensland Derby. It was the year which the Broncos would return to the Grand Final, after almost a decade away. More importantly, it proved to be the year of the Cowboys, as they claimed the first Premiership of their 20 year existence. The year didn’t get off to a good start for the eventual Premiers as they lost their opening three matches. One of these losses was to the Broncos in a 44-22 hammering. This proved to be a catalyst for the 11-game winning streak which the Cowboys would embark on, including a 31-20 victory over the Broncos. Brisbane prevailed 16-12 in a qualifying final.
They would find themselves against each other for the 2015 Grand Final in what is now considered amongst the greatest of all time. The Broncos were seconds away from their seventh premiership but what transpired in the dying seconds was one for the ages. Kyle Feldt crossed in the final seconds of the game and a pin drop could be heard as Johnathan Thurston attempted the conversion. Only when the conversion hit the post and missed could any noise be heard, courtesy of relieved cheers from Broncos supporters. This meant the match was sent to golden point, in which the events were even more unbelievable. The kick-off was spilled by Broncos half-back Ben Hunt, who was visibly and understandably shattered afterwards. A few plays later, the ball found the hands of Thurston, who effectively sealed his place in rugby league immortality and North Queensland rugby league folklore with a field-goal to seal a maiden Premiership for the Cowboys.
They battled it out in the finals in 2016 too. Their first encounter was won by the Broncos 21-20 at Suncorp, courtesy of a golden point field-goal by five-eighth Anthony Milford. Thurston hit the match-winning field goal in the Townsville meeting. Their semi-final was played at break neck speed. Once again, the Broncos were seconds away from winning but a penalty goal took the game to extra time. More Thurston magic was the difference as he sent Michael Morgan over for the decisive try. The match also took its toll on the Cowboys, as their title defence ceased at the hands of eventual Premiers, the Sharks.
This year, the Cowboys drew first blood in their encounter with the Broncos, winning 21-20 at Suncorp Stadium to end a five match losing streak at the stadium. The victory was once again courtesy of a match winning play by JT, who potted a golden point field goal to deliver victory. The game did see stalwart prop Matt Scott ruled out for the season however while the injured Thurston will not be able to effect the game this time around.
Top 10 matches between the clubs
This is a list that some will inevitably disagree with, however after much consideration, this is RealSport’s top 10 Queensland derby games ever.
10. 2001 – Rd 1 – Brisbane Broncos def. North Queensland Cowboys 18-17 at 1300SMILES Stadium (then known as Dairy Farmers Stadium)
9. 2004 – Semi Final – North Queensland Cowboys def. Brisbane Broncos 10-0 at 1300SMILES Stadium (then known as Dairy Farmers Stadium)
8. 2007 – Rd 1 – North Queensland Cowboys def. Brisbane Broncos 23-16 at Suncorp Stadium
7. 2012 – Rd 2 – North Queensland Cowboys def. Brisbane Broncos 28-26 at Suncorp Stadium
6. 2004 – Rd 11 – North Queensland Cowboys def. Brisbane Broncos 19-18 at 1300SMILES Stadium
5. 2017 – Rd 2 – North Queensland Cowboys def. Brisbane Broncos 21-20 (golden point) at Suncorp Stadium
4. 2015 – Qualifying Final – Brisbane Broncos def. North Queensland Cowboys 16-12 at Suncorp Stadium
3. 2016 – Semi Final – North Queensland Cowboys def. Brisbane Broncos 26-20 (extra time) at 1300SMILES Stadium
2. 2016 – Rd 4 – Brisbane Broncos def. North Queensland Cowboys 21-20 (golden point) at Suncorp Stadium
1. 2015 – Grand Final – North Queensland Cowboys def. Brisbane Broncos (golden point) at ANZ Stadium
Honorable mentions must go to the two 20-20 draws from the early years of the rivalry. The stalemates were sensational results for the Cowboys, who didn’t pick up their first derby win till 2004.
Unlike most supporters of non-Queensland based teams, the vast majority of Brisbane Broncos fans are likely to also support another team from their state. In this case, that other team is the North Queensland Cowboys. During their home matches against the Cowboys, Broncos supporters would often cheer the North Queenslanders onto the ground. Some Broncos fans may be inclined to lend their support to fellow south-east Queenslanders, the Gold Coast Titans however the majority class the Cowboys as their second team. When the 2004 semi-final between the two sides was moved from Sydney to Townsville, there were very few complaints from the Broncos fans in what was an act of total goodwill from their club. Having attended the 2005 Grand Final between the Tigers and the Cowboys, I found that a fair amount of those who attended and supported the Cowboys were actually Broncos supporters who were backing the Cowboys.
Broncos supporters were understandably hurt by the heartbreaking 2015 Grand Final result against the Cowboys. However, much of that disappointment was alleviated by the fact that the loss was to the team which most Broncos fans also supported. They were happy that Brisbane-born Johnathan Thurston was able to win a Premiership. After the match, many Broncos fans remained to applaud the Cowboys during both the presentation and the lap of honour. It is doubtful that such sentiments would have been echoed in other rivalries of world sport.
North Queensland Cowboys
Cowboys supporters are also quite likely to support the Broncos as their second team. Epitomising this is the very positive reception which the Broncos would receive whenever they were the visiting team in Townsville. Broncos legend and North Queenslander, Gorden Tallis, was quoted as saying that the Broncos would never get booed until the semi-finals of 2004. Despite spending the majority of his career at the Broncos, Tallis also said he would support the Cowboys, given they had not won a Grand Final up until then.
In the lead up to the 2015 Grand Final many Cowboys fans stated that, whilst they would be supporting their team, they would not have been too disappointed had the Broncos won. Many Broncos players would ultimately end up playing the final matches of their careers against the Cowboys, such as Petero Civoniceva, Corey Parker, Justin Hodges and of course Tallis. Each of these players were well received by the Cowboys fans at the conclusion of their respective matches, especially given their contribution to the sport in Queensland.
The Broncos and Cowboys rivalry is incredibly unique in more ways than one. From the closeness of the matches, with many needing extra time, to the supporters of each team lending their backing to the other. In other rivalries, there is palpable hatred by a fair amount of supporters towards their team’s rivalry. The Queensland derby does have passion but that does not come to fruition through Brisbane Broncos and North Queensland Cowboys fans hating each other’s clubs.
How does the Broncos vs Cowboys derby stack up against the other grudge matches in the NRL? Let us know in the comments below.
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