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Cowboys say they're not finished
The euphoria that swept North Queensland after the Cowboys secured an historic NRL finals berth was a far cry from what Travis Norton felt at the start of his captaincy.
In contrast to the wild scenes that have greeted the Cowboys' first finals campaign, Norton was far from jubilant after North Queensland began his first season at the helm with a poor 1-5 record.
After seven rounds, perennial underachievers the Cowboys were equal second last with four points - two of those thanks to a bye.
Norton had vowed to turn the Cowboys around in their 10th anniversary season after spending seven successful years at the Bulldogs.
But he would have been forgiven for having second thoughts after their poor start.
"We put a lot of pressure on ourselves to make the top eight, given that the Cowboys had a good finish to last season our goal was to make the finals," Norton said.
"But after seven rounds we only had one win and two points from a bye so there's definitely relief (making the finals).
"The last three seasons the Cowboys have had their best ever finishes to the season so things are steadily improving."
Making the finals was tough but surviving the hype before the Cowboys' qualifying final against the Bulldogs at Telstra Stadium on Saturday night will be even harder.
Norton can't walk down the street in Townsville without being stopped by an ecstatic Cowboys fan.
"The whole town is abuzz. No matter where you go, people just love talking footy," Norton said.
"Just walk down the street and people come up to you and have a chat, congratulate you on how well you've gone but we still realise there's still a fair way to go for us."
The Cowboys have been forced to arrange a charter flight to jet supporters to Saturday's clash, with some paying up to $900 a seat.
The Cowboys will even visit local schools in a bus convoy before they get a heroes' sendoff when they fly out to Sydney on Friday morning.
"Yes, it can be a distraction given the fact that it is hyped more now we are in semis," Norton said.
"But if it was the other way and they weren't so caring it wouldn't be good for us."
Bulldogs captain Steve Price dipped his hat to the Cowboys' followers, admitting it would be "terrifying" if they had to play the qualifying final in Townsville.
"It's very big up there. They get fantastic support. It's great for rugby league in North Queensland - these guys are not going to want to let anybody down," he said.
"It would be terrifying to have to go up there and play a final."
Recovering players Norton (knee), Glenn Morrison (neck), Kevin Campion (bicep), Luke O'Donnell (ankle), Paul Rauhihi (calf) and Matt Sing (jaw) were named in a 19-strong Cowboys side for the Bulldogs' clash.
Cowboys coach Graham Murray could wait until Saturday morning to settle on a final 17.
"It's going to be a shame that some of the players who have been there throughout the year and helped us get there are going to miss out," Norton said.
"There's some tough decisions for Graham - I'm glad it's him and not me."