Thurston injury will improve Cowboys: Hall
Losing Johnathan Thurston to injury will prove the turning point in the Cowboys season and the catalyst towards a maiden NRL Telstra Premiership, according to forward Glenn Hall.
In past seasons the Cowboys have struggled to win without their inspirational halfback, but Hall says the club is better equipped in 2011 and the loss of Thurston has only served to force the team to take their game to another level.
There is no question North Queensland’s squad is more balanced this season with the additions of Tariq Sims, Dallas Johnson and the return of Matt Bowen to his destructive best.
There is a newfound belief at the club, and a genuine feeling that the loss of their captain could prove an advantage at the backend of the year.
"We have won two of the last three games without Johnathan Thurston, a player who a lot of the media say we can’t win without," Hall told NRL.com.
"If we can keep doing that and then when we get Johno back - you get the best player in the world back it is only going to be good for the side. We just need to stay focused.
"We are not in the top four by fluke. The teams there are the most consistent sides and that is where we have to be."
The Cowboys are in fourth place and have been one of the most consistent teams all season, but the question marks were raised the moment Thurston went down in State of Origin III.
Before Thurston's injury going into round 18, the club had tasted success just seven times from 27 games in his absence.
But this is a new look team from Townsville, and Hall acknowledges the physiological hurdle the team has had to overcome without their main playmaker on the field.
"I guess it gets talked about a lot and in the back of the player’s minds, it’s hard not to think that Johnathan isn’t there," he said.
"He’s the best player in the world and you love having him in the side. In the back of your mind you ask if you can do it without him.
"But we have proven this year that we are a team, and winning without him gives a lot of confidence to the side.
"It just means when he comes back, the guys who have taken their game to another level like Mango (Matt Bowen) will be even more lethal for our side. It just adds another dimension to our team, with other players taking their game to another level."
The Cowboys are bracing themselves for a torrid six weeks of desperation football as they look to cement a top-four berth against sides frantically clinging on to Premiership survival.
Hall believes the remaining six games will be played with finals intensity as his side clashes with the Panthers, Bulldogs, Rabbitohs and Sharks all looking to save their dwindling seasons.
While those four sides will be desperate to claim a finals berth, the Cowboys also have massive blockbusters against the Broncos and Warriors.
"We have a pretty tough run coming into the finals, we are playing some sides that are not in the top eight, but they are on the cusp and they will be desperate," he said.
"Unpredictable sides that are hard to play against, it is really dangerous for us. They will be desperate and will be chancing their arm a bit more. We don’t have an easy run in.
"The home semi-final for us would be huge. It is pretty tough to travel up here and our fans are very vocal. It is a daunting place to travel to and we want to cement a top four spot to take advantage of that."
The Cowboys face a rejuvenated Panthers side on Saturday night who have won five of their past eight outings, and six of the past eight against the Cowboys, including a 10-point victory last time the two sides met in Round 16.
The Panthers currently sit just two points outside of the top eight and Hall says the Cowboys have marked the clash as a danger game.
"The last couple of weeks the Panthers have been playing really well," he said.
"They have some pretty big humans in that side and they are muscling up in defense. I think they have been dangerous. Manly have been one of the form sides and Penrith really gave them a run for their money last week.
"Last time we played them they shook us up. It is going to be a good challenge.
"Our defence probably hasn’t been up to scratch. If you watch the top sides, they are the best defensive sides in the competition. It’s a cliché, but defence wins you games and if we can’t stop the Panthers offloads, we are going to bleed points."