Big League Feature: Round 2

Matt ‘Mango’ Bowen has finally returned to the paddock after major knee surgery – and there’s no-one happier than Cowboys team-mate Johnathan Thurston.

By MATT CLEARY

YOU are Johnathan Thurston. No, really. You are. It’s a hot and humid Saturday night in Townsville and you’re in the middle of Dairy Farmers Stadium poised on the balls of your feet in your flash white boots, the ball in two hands, the big crowd roaring, and you’re wondering what to do as a pair of Neanderthals rush you, and their mates urge them on yelling, “Thurston! Smash him! SMASH HIM!”

So, pop quiz, Hotshot: what do you do?

If it was last season, you might have punted for a corner, popped the pill to a willing forward (Ray Cashmere being a usual suspect) or turned on some of the footwork and party tricks that saw you twice-crowned Dally M Player of the Year. Bottom line: you would have had a go. But you would have pined for the ‘Mango’.

Pine no more. For Matty ‘Mango’ Bowen is back. Scientists have grown special cartilage in a petri dish and stuffed it back inside Bowen’s knee to grow and be strong. And so there he is now in your dream sequence of sorts, grinning, thinking, looking, running, jinking, flying, seemingly floating light-footed above the grass behind you, putting himself in position so you can hit him on the chest and he shred your opponents like a kelpie dodging oxen.

Now wake up, for it’s not that simple in the best rugby league competition in the world. Bowen has yet to train permanently with the Cowboys group as a whole, and his knee hasn’t yet been tested under the rigorous slog of an NRL season. It’s fantastic that he’s back; everyone in  rugby league has missed him . He played solidly if not spectactularly against the Broncos in Round 1, running six times for 48 metres but committing three errors. As fans we must temper expectations. And cohort Thurston knows it.

“The surgery he had was very major, probably the biggest knee surgery you can have,” Thurston says. “It was about growing cartilage and putting it back in. It was a 10-month process. He hasn’t played in a long time and it’ll take a fair while for him to get back to his best.”

Cowboys fans will hope he can hit the ground running. Last year they won just five games, lost 19 and finished equal last on the ladder, only percentages saving them the ignominy of the wooden spoon. Bowen played just six games. This is not a coincidence. Yet they’ll tell you they’re not a two-man team. And they’re right. Up until this season they’ve been  a three-man team : Thurston, Bowen… and whichever player at the time was charged with making sure good ball got to Thurston and Bowen.

There’s no question when these two are firing, the Cowboys are a premiership threat. And that’s it. When one or both is not their game plan looks something like: everyone try hard, look busy and let’s hope for the best. (Although they’ve taken great steps to change that – see breakout.)

So how is this knee that means so much to the people of North Queensland? It’s hard to tell; getting much out of Bowen is a tough gig for a journalist. Despite his eight seasons in the NRL, the 26-year-old is still a boy from the Far North town of Hope Vale, 50 kilometres and three river crossings north of Cooktown. He’ll hunt snakes at home – but put a microphone under his mouth and it may as well be covered in Redbacks – particularly after an off-season fielding daily questions about said knee.

That said: “The knee’s good,” says Bowen. “Had a few runs in the trial games and it was fine. It’s a bit sore after the Broncos game but that was expected and I’ve pulled up alright. I’m building each week, every training session, and hopefully get back to some form in the next few weeks.”

He must be glad he’s no longer getting personal training from renowned hell-trainer, Billy Johnstone. “Yeah, he’s been tough, turning up every morning, sometimes 5:30, 6:30. But it’s been good; it’s what he’s renowned for.”

And ‘JT’? How’s the Mango’s season looking? “Mate, he’s been training hard since November,” Thurston offers. “They reckon he’s run about 2500 kilometres with Billy. Everyone up here knows how hard Billy trains blokes, but he’s getting really stuck into Matty. Hopefully Billy doesn’t kill him! He’s  running and stepping well but he’s got to grow confidence. He’ll need a few games under the belt before he’s back to his best.”

Bowen agrees. “It’s about building confidence. And not just in yourself, but in the other players. It’s always good to play alongside Johnno; we’ve been playing together for years. But there’s new guys like Willie Tonga, Antonio Kaufusi, who you’ve got to learn to play with.

“But mate it’s always good to play footy. And after that long out, I’m enjoying being back out there, and looking forward to playing week in week out.”

As are we all – J.Thurston most of all.