Cowboys X-Factor: Willie Tonga

Willie Tonga has suffered a lot since being named Dally M centre of the year back in 2004. Back then Tonga was flying high, winning a premiership with the Bulldogs and representing Queensland and Australia.<br><br>Five years and countless frustrating injuries later, Tonga’s stint at the top feels like a lifetime ago. 2004 was also the year the speedster won a Grand Final with the Bulldogs and two of his current teammates Johnathan Thurston and Ben Harris.<br><br>The big questions for Tonga are: can he recapture the form of ’04 as he rejoins with his Bulldogs premiership teammates Johnathan Thurston &amp; Ben Harris; and can he stay fit and on the field., The Cowboys’ risk vs reward gamble on an injury-prone but devastatingly talented Willie Tonga makes him a true X factor for the North Queensland side desperate for redemption after a poor 2008<br><br>Tonga is optimistic he can recapture the form of old and be the strike force the Cowboys are desperate for in the centres.<br><br>“JT was a drawcard for me to come up here and Matt Bowen as well. They have a lethal combination in the backline and I’d like to be a part of that. They can help me with my game and JT is happy to do that.<br><br>“I’ve spoken to JT about wanting to score plenty of tries and he’s told me he is there for me and whenever I want the ball to let him know and he’ll get it to me. Knowing that and knowing I have a halfback who can do that helps the confidence.<br><br>“I think once you have played rep footy and you know what it’s about then you always want to go back there. I’ve thought about it, but with the centres Queensland have these days in Israel Folau, Justin Hodges and Brent Tate I know it’s probably not likely. Having said that I will be giving my all for the Cowboys and you never know, we’ll see what happens.”<br><br>Things have certainly changed since the last time Tonga and Thurston were together.Back then Tonga was the bigger star. Thurston the emerging talent<br><br>“Johnathan back at the Bulldogs in ’04, he was the guy who came into the side when Brent Sherwin or Braith Anasta were out injured, and the transformation in his game to now has been huge. He has become a real leader on the park, always seems to have space and is one of the best players in the game.”<br><br>It’s the attacking combination of Thurston, Tonga and Bowen and their combined fitness that will decide the Cowboys fate in 2009. If all are fit and healthy, then the Cowboys will be potent. Tonga and Bowen have been noted try scorers throughout their careers and Thurston can lay them on.<br><br>Not for the first time, Tonga spent the pre-season in the injured brigade after missing most of 2008. It was tough but under the guidance of legendary trainer Billy Johnstone he thinks he is better for it.<br><br>“It’s been tough the last few years and to be honest there have been more lows than highs but my motivation is still there to do the best I can.<br><br>“I was in the recovery squad up until Christmas, working with Billy, but he has really helped me to get fit again. I came through the trial and was pretty sore but after 10 months out of the game, that’s what we expected.”<br><br>If Tonga has a full season and makes it back to the dizzying heights of 2004 then he may owe a lot of it to new coach Neil Henry.<br><br>“We have spoken about improving as a team and as individuals and the coach has been great. I haven’t been coached the way I have by Neil Henry since I had Brian Smith at Parramatta.<br><br>“He has helped me a lot with my positional play, letting me know where he wants me to be in attack and defence, pointing out little things to me in the trials and in training.”<br><br>Should Tonga be in the right place at the right time as Henry wants him to be, then the Cowboys could be in the right place at the right time come September with a rejuvenated Willie Tonga helping to lead the way.<br><br>