It's been a long time coming but for the people of North Queensland, it's time to stand and cheer your team. They have done you proud and have exceeded everybody's expectations, dare I say it, even their own. On Saturday night, 25,000 screaming fans will pack into Dairy Farmers Stadium to witness history in the making as the Cowboys look to advance to the grand final qualifier the following week.
The Brisbane Broncos must be given credit for their decision to allow the game to be shifted from Sydney to Townsville and put themselves at a massive disadvantage. Could anyone ever see the Roosters do something similar? No need to respond as we all know what the answer is to that one. Although, the cynics among us will attempt to read between the lines and suggest that Bennett may have produced the master stroke of the season, giving his side a siege mentality attitude in an us versus them battle. It could also give Townsville born Gorden Tallis a hero's farewell in front of his home fans should the Broncos lose.
Win, lose or draw against the Broncos, the Cowboys have legitimised themselves in the eyes of the Rugby League world and are now a force to be reckoned with. However, I doubt they'd be happy with a loss and even though they are finals debutants for this year, they have a team capable of progressing at least a week further into the finals.
Self belief is a wonderful thing and the Cowboys possess it by the truckload and in their sixteen meetings with the Broncos to date, they are yet to win a match. The best they have achieved is two draws from the sixteen matches but my how the mighty have fallen. The Broncos look terribly out of form and the Cowboys disposed of the Bulldogs, this years favourites, with consumate ease. They also effectively knocked the Dragons out of the premiership race, a team seen by many as this years dark horse.
The Cowboys possess a balance of speed and size, two attributes they used with lethal effect against the Bulldogs last weekend. The Cowboys little men exploited the Bulldogs ruck and middle to perfection and then proceeded to use Shane Tronc and Paul Rauhihi as battering rams to keep the middle a happy hunting ground.
A quick glance at the Cowboys backline reveals a team with the perfect cross section of speed and defence. Josh Hannay and Paul Bowman are recognised as two of th ebest defensive centres in the NRL and on their outside you have Matt Sing, Ty Williams and the explosive Matt Bowen. You then have the unheralded talents of Nathan Fien and David Myles. Fien had the best game of his career against the Bulldogs last weekend whilst Myles, somewhat of a journeyman has improved dramatically since being given the five eighth role earlier this season.
In the forwards, the Cowboys have arguably the biggest front row in the NRL and they use them with devestating effect. Paul Rauhihi and Scott Tronc cross the advantage line at will but what makes even more lethal is their ability to off load in traffic and create second phase play for the Cowboys speedy outside backs. Aaron Payne is developing into a first calss hoooker and in several games this year, his running out of dummy half has helped the Cowboys in tight situations.
In the back row you have Luke O'Donell and Steve Southern, both discards from Sydney clubs who have revelled in the North Queensland sun and sand. O'Donell was an enigma at the Wests Tigers, missing a lot of games due to suspension and injury whilst Southern could not bed down a spot with the star studded St George Illawarra Dragons. It's fair to say both have played their best football with the Cowboys.
Locking the scrum is the crafty captain Travis Norton, who made the move north from the Bulldogs at the end of last season and it has paid off in spades with Norton assuming the captaincy role and has the experienced head to nurture the sometimes precocious talent in the Cowboys ranks.
The bench consists of Glenn Morrison, Leigh McWilliams, Mitchell Sargent and Rod Jensen. Morrison is Parramatta bound next year but that would be the last thing on his mind at present. His experience off the bench could be a pivotal factor is deciding the outcome of this match but he is not alone. Leigh McWilliams set up a brilliant try for Matt Bowen last weekend and is an underrated hooker who is finally getting the recognition he deserves. Mitchell Sargent and Rod Jensen were not wanted by their respective clubs last year and also found their way north and flourished under the guidance of Graham Murray.
Without question, the most important aspect of the Cowboys success can be attributed to coach Graham Murray and conditioner Billy Johnstone. Murray is the best in the business at bringing out the best in an underachieving side and Johnstone is widely regarded as the best conditioner in the NRL and was a great loss to the Bulldogs when he decided to shift north to Townsville. The Cowboys would have more endurance and stamina than any side in the NRL due to the oppressive conditions they train and play in and that may be the edge they need to get them across the line in front of a delirious home crowd on Saturday night.
The Cowboys deserve their success and they might have a few teams looking over their shoulders should they beat the Broncos on Saturday night.
NORTH QUEENSLAND v BRISBANE at Dairy Farmers Stadium at 7.45pm. COWBOYS: Matt Bowen, Ty Williams, Josh Hannay, Paul Bowman, Matt Sing, David Myles, Nathan Fien, Paul Rauhihi, Aaron Payne, Shane Tronc, Luke O'Donnell, Steve Southern, Travis Norton (c). Interchange: Rod Jensen, Glenn Morrison, Leigh McWilliams, Mitchell Sargent, Kevin Campion, David Faiumu (two to be omitted).
BRONCOS: Karmichael Hunt, Gary Tupou, Brent Tate, Shaun Berrigan, Stuart Kelly, Darren Lockyer, Casey McGuire, Shane Webcke, Neville Costigan, Petero Civoniceva, Gorden Tallis (c), Dane Carlaw, Tonie Carroll. Interchange: Corey Parker, Darren Mapp, Tom Learoyd, Ben Ikin, David Stagg, Sam Thaiday, Paul Green, Brad Meyers (four to be omitted).
Referee: Tim Mander.
Brisbane: Played 25, Won 16, Drawn 1, Lost 8 (Points for: 616, Points against: 564) North Queensland: Played 25, Won 13, Drawn 1, Lost 11 (Points for: 556, Points against: 536) Head to head: Played 16, Brisbane 14, Drawn 2. Previous clashes (2004): Brisbane 19 bt North Queensland 12 at Dairy Farmers Stadium (Rd 6)
NB: On Friday, Leagueunlimited.com will preview the Bulldogs vs Storm match to be played on Sunday.