High-quality recruitment has been the key to the improved form of the North Queensland Cowboys this season and their clash with front-runners St George Illawarra this Sunday is expected to provide an important gauge of their progress.

The defensive starch supplied by Queensland and Australian lock Dallas Johnson and grand final-winning back-rower Glenn Hall has given the Cowboys’ pack its hardest edge in years, and the direct running of second-rower Gavin Cooper has sharpened the team’s already impressive left-side attack.

But it is three recruits from the Dragons who are sure to catch the eye at WIN Jubilee Oval this Sunday when they take on their old club.

Auckland-born winger Kalifa Faifai-Loa went north in search of a permanent first grade berth with the Cowboys and returns to Kogarah with six games under his belt with his new outfit and an enhanced reputation as a dynamic attacking flanker and strong finisher. He is sure to harbour a sense of satisfaction having so far scored three tries compared to only one by the man who blocked his path to first grade at the Dragons, Test flyer Brett Morris.

The Sims brothers, Ashton and Tariq, have been a revelation at Townsville in 2011, fortifying the pack with their explosive efforts off the bench and both of these Gerringong Lions juniors will be aiming to make an impact against their old club.

Ashton played 81 NRL games for the Dragons between 2003 and 2007 while Tariq was on the rise through the club’s junior ranks when he followed his older brother to Brisbane in 2008. Ashton jumped at the opportunity to play under coach Wayne Bennett at the Broncos and even though Bennett headed south at the end of Sims’ first season with the club, he credited Bennett with having a huge influence on his career.

Tariq continued his development with the Broncos’ Toyota Cup team and last year he was named Toyota Cup player of the year.

Dragons recruits have proved valuable for the Cowboys since they joined the premiership in 1995. Justin Smith, Brett Firman and Dapto junior Steve Southern played in North Queensland’s grand final team of 2005, while other former Dragons to strip for the Cowboys include Sarina junior Kevin Campion, Noel Goldthorpe and Damien Smith.

The recent flow of Dragons heading north reverses a trend that prevailed for over a half a century of North Queensland hopefuls making the journey to New South Wales in search of an opportunity with the southern Sydney powerhouse.

The most famous example was Townsville’s Gorden Tallis who arrived at St George as an unknown teenager in 1991 and left a handful of seasons later as one of the most damaging second-rowers of the modern era.

Mackay-born second-rower Elton Rasmussen was already an established Test forward when he joined the Dragons in 1962 but he helped to power the St George pack for the last five of its record run of 11 premiership victories.

Kevin Campion (Sarina), Adrian Brunker (Collinsville) and Matt Elliott (Townsville) were all members of St George grand final teams of the 1990s and there is no forgetting one of NQ’s finest, Wendell Sailor, who played out the final seasons of his glittering career wearing the Red V.

Before them Cairns winger Stan Gorton topped the premiership try-scoring charts in 1968, while another recruit from Cairns, Gavin Allen cut his teeth in first grade with the Dragons in 1987 before establishing himself as a State of Origin player with the Brisbane Broncos.

The first to journey from North Queensland to Kogarah was an Ipswich-born halfback Eric Hughes, in 1936. Hughes was earning £2 a day working in the mines in Mt Isa in 1935 when he decided to try his luck in Sydney. A contact steered him towards St George and according to reports the 23-year-old travelled “2048 miles at his own expense” on the off-chance of winning a place in the top grade.

He succeeded, playing most of the 1936 season at five-eighth for St George, scoring three tries. His stay was brief but in one winter Hughes blazed a trail for North Queensland footballers to one of the game’s most iconic clubs.

And fittingly it is another halfback (or hooker) who made the journey from Mt Isa to Kogarah (via Auckland), Nathan Fien, who will uphold the tradition this Sunday.