North Queensland Cowboys fullback Michael Morgan capped off a Man of the Match performance with two line breaks and a sneaky try against the Sharks. Credit: Robb Cox. Copyright: NRL Photos.
The ever-improving form of Cowboys makeshift fullback Michael Morgan has turned what could have been a massive dilemma for the North Queensland Club into one of its biggest strengths.
The Cowboys finally broke a 320-day NRL away-game drought with a 36-18 win over the embattled Sharks at Remondis Stadium last week, but face a much stiffer task to back it up at ANZ Stadium this week against a high-flying Bulldogs side that will be looking to bounce back from a shock mauling at the hands of Wests Tigers.
A big part of that win was fullback Michael Morgan, who laid on a try for winger Antonio Winterstein with a sublime cutout pass then scored an improbable try himself.
It's a far cry from where the Cowboys were when high-profile fullback recruit Lachlan Coote suffered an ACL injury in the pre-season Auckland Nines competition – effectively ending his 2014 season before it had even begun.
New coach Paul Green was widely expected to have to take a punt on a rookie, with candidates including Javid Bowen, cousin of legendary club fullback Matt, or another youngster such as Zac Santo or Curtis Rona.
Green opted to take an even bigger punt, throwing the No.1 jersey on reserve halfback Michael Morgan, and neither Morgan nor the club has looked back since with the new custodian among the side's best and most consistent players all year.
After the Sharks win, Morgan told NRL.com while he was happy with his own form, the main thing to come from that game was to finally prove to themselves they could win away from Townsville.
"There was an opportunity there [at fullback], unfortunately for Cootey he went down but the important thing is I’m enjoying it and the boys around me have made it a lot easier as well – guys like Robbie [Lui] and Jono [Johnathan Thurston] and Ray [Thompson]," he said.
"When our forwards are going forward like they did [on Friday night] it makes the back five’s jobs a lot easier."
That combination with Thurston in particular is beginning to pay dividends.
"He’s a freak of a player so hopefully we can continue to build on tonight and have a good finish to the year," Morgan said.
So good has his form been that he was called in to camp with the injury-hit Maroons ahead of Origin III – an experience he said will stand him in good stead.
"I learned a lot out of that, just out of the few days I was there, watching them prepare and what they do at training, that kind of thing," Morgan said.
"It was a bit of a confidence boost for me but the focus now as it always has been is here with the Cowboys."
His coach was happy to give him a plug, especially given he had never played as a fullback before this season.
"He has been great for us this year. He's solved a huge problem – people probably forget about poor old Lachlan Coote, he did his knee there in the Nines, we were in a bit of trouble in that position," Green said after the Cronulla game.
"Morgo, to do what he's done is quite amazing really. He's never played fullback in his life – he's not only done a job for us, he's doing a great job for us. He's one of our most dangerous attacking players week in week out."
Despite the relief of having broken their away duck, the players are under no illusion as to the size of the task that awaits them at ANZ Stadium on Saturday night.
"We’ll have a look at the vision [before the game]. It’ll be a good test for us and a challenge, but if we can build on [Round 19] then I think we’re up to it," Morgan said.
"When we click like we did [against the Sharks] – there were patches where we were really good and patches where we can still fix up as well but as long as we keep the good feeling within the group and get a few boys back within the next few weeks hopefully we can keep moving forward."
Cowboys utility Ray Thompson also spoke of the need to build some continuity.
"We've got to build off that win and continue that momentum," Thompson told NRL.com.
"There were parts where we were fluent and had continuity, we'll work on that and keep improving on that and the areas where we let them build momentum we'll try and sort those little areas out and be a little grittier and tougher."