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For nine years the Cowboys of the far north were sound asleep. Now after a fairytale 2004 season, they?ve finally awoken.
It seemed as though most people whose teams didn?t make this year?s finals were getting behind the North Queensland Cowboys? daring dash for glory. All of a sudden the game?s media and supporters sat up to take notice of a club who used to be so unappealing that they hadn?t appeared on free to air television since their debut game in Round 1, 1995.
The exciting late season surge was kick started by a 28-12 win over the Wests Tigers at Campbelltown on a day of firsts for the fledgling club. The Cowboys qualified for the finals for the first time and it was the club?s first free to air television appearance in nearly 9 and a half years. North Queensland entered the finals in seventh position, but few experts gave them much chance of progressing further.
The Cowboys shocked the Bulldogs in their finals debut at Telstra Stadium. The game plan concentrated on making numerous metres around the ruck with nippy runners such as hooker Aaron Payne, halfback Nathan Fien and livewire Matt Bowen. Matt Sing was outstanding on the wing in both attack and defence, getting the better of his opposite Matt Utai with a hat-trick of tries leaping in the air from cross field kicks.
The decision to move the Cowboys semi final clash with ?big brothers? the Brisbane Broncos to Dairy Farmers Stadium proved to be a great event for both the people of Townsville as well as the team?s performance. In a high intensity match, the Cowboys finally broke through for their first ever win against the Broncos, with a 10-0 shut out. This match characterised the commitment and team spirit that took the Cowboys so far in 2004. Graham Murray?s men had finally learnt how to win big games.
The Cowboys gave their all in the Preliminary Final against the Sydney Roosters, and were unlucky to lose 16-19. The match had a number of controversial incidents, none more so than at the end when referee Paul Simpkins refused to allow a scrum to pack down in the final 10 seconds, denying the Cowboys one last chance to snatch the game. Despite the disappointment of that game, the Cowboys had good reason to be satisfied with their best ever season.
It wasn?t always smooth sailing in 2004. The club began poorly with just one win from their first six matches, and they were beaten in their first four home games. It was only when the players agreed to approach one match at a time, rather than looking too far ahead, that the wins started to come.
The Cowboys had many star performers in 2004, none more consistent than Prop Forward Paul Rauhihi. The big kiwi was Dally M prop of the year. He ran strongly up the middle and enhanced his reputation as one of the more skilful offloading props in the NRL. Fullback ?Matty? Bowen had a scintillating second half of the season. He scored several spectacular tries which enthralled home crowds. His diminutive stature proved an asset as he jinked and weaved past a number of hapless Cronulla defenders in Round 26. Travis Norton proved a fine captain after taking over from Paul Bowman during the course of the season. Winger Ty Williams was also a big improver with his all round game. Graham Murray would have also been encouraged to see the way the likes of Steve Southern, Luke O?Donnell and Shane Tronc really stood up in the absence of injured stars Glen Morrison & Kevin Campion.
PREDICTION FOR 2005: The future looks bright for the Cowboys. The losses of Campion, Morrison and Fien are offset by the gains of Justin Smith, Carl Webb and Johnathan Thurston. Carl Webb in particular could add real starch to the back row as long as he can be more consistent. The Cowboys have one of the best back three?s in the NRL (Bowen, Williams & Sing), and have two big ?bulldozers? up front in Rauhihi and Tronc. The mix of youth and experience is ideal and the coaching ability of Graham Murray can no longer be doubted. The Cowboys should enjoy a better regular season in 2004 and it wouldn?t surprise me if they matched or even bettered their 2004?s finals campaign.
Match Records 2004
ROUND OPPONENT VENUE RESULT SCORE 1 Manly Sea Eagles Dairy Farmers Stadium LOSS 20-24 2 BYE
3 Canberra Raiders Dairy Farmers Stadium LOSS 18-19 4 Wests Tigers Dairy Farmers Stadium LOSS 8-18 5 Cronulla Sharks Toyota Park WIN 36-10 6 Brisbane Broncos Dairy Farmers Stadium LOSS 12-19 7 Melbourne Storm Olympic Park LOSS 6-28 8 Parramatta Stadium Parramatta Stadium WIN 24-20 9 New Zealand Warriors Dairy Farmers Stadium WIN 16-8 10 South Sydney Rabbitohs Express Advocate Stadium DRAW 20-20 11 Penrith Panthers Dairy Farmers Stadium LOSS 18-22 12 BYE
13 St.George-Illawarra Dragons WIN Stadium WIN 14-12 14 Newcastle Knights Dairy Farmers Stadium WIN 30-6 15 New Zealand Warriors Ericsson Stadium WIN 28-26 16 Bulldogs Dairy Farmers Stadium LOSS 18-32 17 Sydney Roosters Express Advocate Stadium LOSS 22-32 18 Canberra Raiders Canberra Stadium LOSS 28-32 19 Parramatta Eels Dairy Farmers Stadium WIN 28-6 20 Newcastle Knights Energy Australia Stadium WIN 28-24 21 St.George-Illawarra Dragons Dairy Farmers Stadium WIN 34-10 22 Bulldogs Telstra Stadium LOSS 16-36 23 South Sydney Rabbitohs Dairy Farmers Stadium WIN 36-22 24 Penrith Panthers Penrith Stadium LOSS 6-56 25 Wests Tigers Campbelltown Stadium WIN 28-12 26 Cronulla Sharks Dairy Farmers Stadium WIN 36-20 Qualifying Final Bulldogs Telstra Stadium WIN 30-22 Semi Final Brisbane Broncos Dairy Farmers Stadium WIN 10-0 Preliminary Final Sydney Roosters Telstra Stadium LOSS 16-19 14 WINS, 1 DRAW, 12 LOSSES, FOR: 582 AGAINST: 555 POSITION: Preliminary Finalists, 7th in Minor Premiership
North Queensland Cowboys ? 2005 Player Movement
Gains: Hayden Karena (Waicoa Bay Stallions- NZ mid season), Johnathan Thurston (Bulldogs, 3yrs) Justin Smith (Souths, 3yrs), Brent McConnell (Burleigh, 2yrs), Carl Webb (Broncos, 2yrs), Gavin Cooper (Redcliffe, 2yrs), Charlie Vis (Redcliffe), Sema Mataora (North Sydney, 2yrs), Kieran Kerr (Tigers, 1 yr), Brady Payne (Centrals, QLD Cup, 2 years) , Cam Wilkinson (St Brendans College, 1yr) , Micheal Fairweather (St Brendans College, 1yr)
Losses: Kevin Campion (Warriors Management), Jamie McDonald (UTC, France, 2yrs), Glenn Morrison (Eels, 2yrs), Nathan Fien (Warriors, 3yrs), Ben Laity (released) Steven Goodhew (released), Michael Meigan (Released), Derrick Watkins (Broncos), Daniel Sorbello (Wynnum Qld Cup), Aaron Morgan (Released), Hale Va'asa (Back To NZ)
By Michael Allen ? Freelance Journalist