Sterling Gold: Bowen the Cowboys' saviour
When Johnathan Thurston hit the deck in the 60th minute of Origin III there was a collective gasp of dismay throughout the whole of Queensland.
It was most audible however in the north, with Cowboys supporters immediately taking on board the probable ramifications of losing their star playmaker for the season.
Even their staunchest fan would have grave doubts as to the club's chances of finally securing their first premiership title without Thurston on board. Quite simply he is the ace in their pack.
Things looked particularly grim when he emerged from the sheds in a wheelchair, sucking profusely on pain-killers, to be a part of the Maroon's post-match celebrations.
Fortunately, despite initial fears of a serious ACL injury, the news was far better than expected with a diagnosis of up to six weeks on the sidelines and a return for finals football.
North Queensland fans could relax and rest comfortably.
Or could they?
At that stage their side was highly-placed in the top four on 24 points with just the Storm, Sea Eagles and Dragons sitting above them. They were well on course for a finals berth with a maximum of three further victories ensuring them a coveted top-eight finish.
A continuation of this year's good form would see that achieved easily, but adversity often brings to mind bitter memories and lingering doubt.
The last three seasons have been a nightmare for Cowboy fans with their team finishing 15th, 12th and 15th on the back of campaigns that lacked any consistency or enthusiasm. They won a total of just 21 matches from 72 played.
Significantly, before Johnathan's injury going into round 18, the club had tasted success just seven times from 27 games in his absence.
Now there is no doubt that this year's North Queensland is a different animal with a stronger and more experienced playing group and a new-found consistency and belief. Still, any champion rowing eights will tell you that without the little guy sitting up front steering the ship and setting the right tempo they are in trouble. Maybe “rudderless” is an apt description.
Enter the magical Matt Bowen.
From the opening minute against Newcastle it was obvious that the diminutive full-back was taking control and stepping into the breach left by his usual partner in crime.
That has made the job so much easier for rookie halves Ray Thompson, Michael Morgan and Ben Jones who have not had to take on the onerous task of guiding the team around the park. They would have been well aware that if they had struggled in that area they would have borne the brunt of the resulting criticism.
The team performance against Newcastle wasn't great but good enough to get the points.
The following week they were competitive but beaten by a Wests Tigers outfit who found their dangerous rhythm in the final 40 minutes.
Last Saturday the side was in trouble against the Titans but Bowen took control.
He set up tries, kicked goals, evaded defenders and forced line drop-outs to inspire the Cowboys to another vital two competition points. When it comes to the finals, two wins down, only one to go.
After trailing at the break, Matt provided the necessary momentum with an early second-half grubber which drew an error from Steve Michaels. Try to Ashley Graham.
He finished proceedings by throwing the key ball to initiate a breathtaking left side raid that stretched 60 metres. Try to Gavin Cooper.
After a horror run with knee injuries there is no doubt that he is back to his best and has lost little of his blinding speed. Any doubt about regaining his zip was definitely eradicated by his superb try-saving tackle on noted speedster David Mead.
Whilst the return of Thurston will be a massive boost on the eve of the quarter-finals, the encouraging sign for North Queensland fans is that he and Bowen are now receiving solid support from the rest of the playing group.
Recruiting thorough professionals in Dallas Johnston, Brent Tate and Glenn Hall has been particularly significant. Along with being good citizens, they provide 449 NRL games of first-grade experience and are all premiership-winning players.
After such a tough road back from knee surgery it was very gratifying to see Tate crash over for his first try for his new club.
The Cowboys also boast the best young forward in the game in the dynamic Tariq Sims. The Broncos must be kicking themselves that they ever allowed this tyro to head north.
He was again ruthless in defence against the Gold Coast, snapping back the head of Luke Bailey on a couple of occasions and forcing a crucial turnover from Steve Michaels after a heavy collision.
In what is a reversal of the usual roles, Tariq appears to have drawn out the best football from big brother Ashton.
Throw in consistent efforts from Matt Scott, James Tamou, Gavin Cooper, Aaron Payne, wingers Ash Graham and Kalifa Fai Fai Loa and skilful interchange James Segeyaro and it is no fluke that they occupy such a lofty position on the ladder.
This spot was in jeopardy when Johnathan Thurston was laid low. Along with Cameron Smith he is the most influential member of any team and the hole that either of these players leave when out is gigantic.
Fortunately for North Queensland, they have a saviour in Matt Bowen.<>and >