This message goes out to all the Cowboys fans who, like me, had written them off this year. Before round seven I wrote an article pleading for Michael Morgan to take the reins of the club in Johnathan Thurston’s absence, to take his talent and augment it to a steely determination and some game management. This was while Thurston had a relatively short-term injury, the great man was still to return in 2017.
When it was announced that the shoulder injury that Thurston had sustained during State of Origin was season-ending, many Cowboys said “there goes our year”. The mid-season signing of Te Maire Martin started to look like the Cowboys knew more about Thurston’s body than they were letting on, and proved to be a masterstroke.
I expected them to make the top eight, and they did that. I had written a Cowboys season review in case they didn’t. Then I adjusted that season review after they toppled the Sharks before the Eels semi-final gave me another item to add into the ‘Season Highlights’.
Here we are, heading into Grand Final week and I’m going to have to re-write the whole bloody thing! What was initially an article that pushed the narrative of ‘needing luck to win competitions’, has now turned into a piece about the spirit of the Cowboys, the culture of the club and the pride of a region. But it hasn’t always been like this.
I was there….
I was there for the dark days in 1995. Townsville born, I moved with my family to Brisbane in 1994 and went to my first NSWRL game to watch the Broncos play. I still remember my dad telling me that the Cowboys would be playing next year and that “you’re from Townsville, you should go for the Cowboys.” That was it for me, my mission was clear; support the Cowboys or be a traitor!
As a seven-year-old, I watched that first game against the Bulldogs on TV, with the Cowboys gallant in a 32-16 defeat. While my Broncos-supporting schoolmates were enjoying a seven match winning streak to open the season, my Cowboys spent the same amount of time losing every game.
They’d go on to win just two games in that wooden spoon season, against the Illawarra Steelers and Western Suburbs Magpies. The one shining light would be the club debut of a future club legend, Paul Bowman.
I was there for the first time they played against the Broncos in Brisbane in April of ’96. The crowd was robust and parochial as the Broncos were one of the glamour clubs of the league. The Cowboys were no match. In fact, they were flogged.
Every try the Broncos scored on the way to a 58-14 scoreline was like a dagger in the heart of an almost eight-year-old child. Every fan that shouted something mean about your team genuinely hurt. Many Broncos fans are quite gracious in defeat but are menacing in victory.
For the next decade, trips to Broncos games were terribly unpleasant, particularly on crowded buses. We’d claim the wooden spoon in 1995, 1997 (Super League) and 2000. We narrowly avoided it in most other years until Graham Murray and Travis Norton combined to install some credibility to our side.
I was there when the Cowboys turned the corner in 2004 and made the finals for the first time.
Matt Bowen, the first Cowboys developed player to represent Australia, joined a creative back line that included Matt Sing, Paul Bowman, Josh Hannay and Ty Williams alongside Aaron Payne at dummy-half. The forward pack was made of Paul Rauhihi, Travis Norton, Luke O’Donnell and a rookie that went by the name of Matt Scott.
After finishing seventh, they played the second placed Bulldogs and won 30-22, with Matt Sing scoring three times. The Broncos then generously took the semi-final to Townsville and with a packed stadium, the Cowboys were able to beat their ‘big brothers’ for the very first time, 10-0.
No one expected anything from the boys from the North, but yet they had made it to the preliminary finals against the Minor Premiers. They pushed them right to the full time siren with a 19-16 loss. Then they signed a young man from the Bulldogs that would change everything.
One step closer…
I wasn’t exactly there in 2005 when the Cowboys made the Grand Final – I was 17 and couldn’t self-fund the trip – but I remember so much of that season. The thing I remember most is Johnathan Thurston.
People always remember 2005 for the Tigers winning and for that flick pass from Benji Marshall. The thing I recall is the show-and-go of Thurston on the left edge, which he used to great effect for both the Cowboys and Queensland that year.
I remember hearing about how good the signing was because of his talent but especially because he gave up his Premiership ring to injured captain, Steve Price, in 2004.
It said a lot about the man, the experts said. He could be the greatest signing in Cowboys history, the experts said. This same man is now, arguably, the greatest player of the modern era, keeping his chipper off-field demeanour as intact as his ferocious determination on the field.
This same man, despite his standing in the game, rides every play like he is a proud dad as he watches from the sidelines and picks up after his mates in the sheds after the game.
In 2005 they tasted bitter defeat, but a culture was building that would carry the club through consistent success ever since, albeit with a couple of dry patches along the way.
The big one
I, thankfully, was there in 2015 when they finally did it. In truth, it had been coming for a few years, with the less said about ‘The Hand of Foran’ or the infamous ‘7th Tackle Try’, the better. In fact, that was exactly how Paul Green liked it. He said he didn’t want to dwell on the past and that he wasn’t interested in conspiracy theories.
In 2013, he was an assistant coach at the Roosters when they were both Minor Premiers and Premiers. He learned that Premierships were won by having a talented roster and having the best club culture possible. 2015 would be his crowning moment.
Rugby League fans from Sydney ensured that there were more Cowboys fans in the stadium. They wanted to see the Thurston fairytale. They wanted to see the Cowboys win their first Premiership – or perhaps they simply didn’t like the Broncos. Either way, we just appreciated the solidarity and goodwill.
But all wasn’t going to plan, trailing 16-12 with 20 minutes left. The Broncos started trying to defend the lead instead of scoring points; we had a sniff.
With a minute left, Kyle Feldt stripped the ball and the crowd rose to its feet as one. This would be a thriller. On the last play of the game, the Cowboys kept it alive desperately until they found Morgan, a man for pressure situations. He had too much pace for Anthony Milford, caught Jack Reed in no-man’s-land and drew in Corey Oates, before throwing a flick-pass.My head dropped, I hadn’t seen Feldt in the corner. The crowd was erupting, I was sure that the Broncos had won it, but then I heard my Aunty cheering next to me.
Could it be?
I looked up at the big screen. This was happening. The tension for the kick attempt was incredible and it hit the post. full time, extra time, more drama.
We all know the rest of the story; the spiraling kick-off from Feldt that poor old Ben Hunt spilled, the quick play-the-ball from James Tamou, the wobbly drop from Thurston before correcting the kick to send it over right in front of the Broncos fans.
I was in the top tier, with tears in my eyes, screaming at the top of my lungs. I couldn’t hear myself. I had friends about four rows back that I made my way towards, but my Cowboys jersey acted like a hug magnet; I must have been hugged 15 times by random strangers on the 20 metre walk to my friends. Incredible!
Why they can win
As I said, they were gone in 2017. No Scott or Thurston, with Lachlan Coote and Jake Granville out at important times of the year. Minimal depth in the front Row and backs to the wall, being lucky to even reach the top eight.
Green wasn’t having any of that, saying that he knew that their luck would change if they kept playing their brand of footy. The Sharks were poor, while the Eels and Roosters were simply not allowed to play the football that wins these contests. And it’s not just Morgan taking control of the team that has done it. It is the fact that everyone has taken ownership of the side.
Look at the way that Taumalolo is making enough metres to account for himself AND the missing Scott. See how Gavin Cooper is leading them around and making those 1% plays, like the block for Morgan’s field goal against the Sharks, or his intercept against the Eels.
Watch Ethan Lowe chasing Will Smith all the way into the corner to save his team two points against the Eels. Look at Shaun Fensom playing out of position, helping to fill the void in the middle, starting games against front rowers like Andrew Fifita, Tim Mannah, Jared Waerea-Hargreaves and Dylan Napa.
The list goes on to the point where it’d be heartbreaking to see young Corey Jensen replaced in the team should co-captain Scott be fit.
And that’s just the forwards.
Don’t forget the composure of Coote and his wonderful kicking game or the superhuman finishing of Feldt. Antonio Winterstein playing through injury and Kane Linnett’s ability to move to right centre and still be as strong as ever.
Against the Roosters, the thing that epitomised the culture of the Cowboys the most was Justin O’Neill, who, after committing a simple error that lead directly to a Blake Ferguson try, was able to chase a Morgan kick downfield and put a stinging hit on Michael Gordon. He then chased from marker to lay an even better hit on Ferguson, dislodging the ball and giving the Cowboys great field position from which they scored. They didn’t drop their heads despite a poor error, they knew that O’Neill would redeem himself, and he did. Games won’t always go your way, it’s how you seize the momentum back from your opponent that dictates how you fare.
The Melbourne Storm side of 2017 is arguably the greatest club team of the modern era and they’ll be looking to send Cooper Cronk out a winner. There’s also no guarantee on Billy Slater’s future; both legends may retire after winning the competition if they manage to do so. They’ll be favourites and frankly, if any team other than the Storm wins the Premiership it’ll be damn-near a crime after the way they’ve consistently dominated the competition this year.
But they aren’t perfect, they showed that in the first half against the Broncos on Friday night and a fortnight prior against the Eels. In the Cowboys side that won the preliminary final, there were 13 players that had won a Premiership before; they have the experience to get the job done. If the Cowboys complete their sets, kick into space and work hard in the middle of the field, they can beat the mighty Storm.
I can proudly say that I’ll be there to watch this next chapter in the story of the Cowboys unfold on Sunday night. Where will you be when history happens?
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