North Qld trailblazers show the way in Sydney

Figures published in Friday’s Sydney Morning Herald paint a disturbing picture for the North Queensland Cowboys ahead of their must-win qualifying final against Manly at Sydney Football Stadium.

Statistics show that the Cowboys have won only six of their 32 games at Sydney venues since the 2005 grand final. Their winning record at all away venues over the past six seasons is less than flattering at 31.5 percent but that figure falls away to just 18.8 percent in the Harbour City.

The Sydney records of the Cowboys’ three longest-serving players Matt Bowen, Johnathan Thurston and Aaron Payne emphasises the team’s woeful record in the metropolis. Bowen has won five of 27 games (18.5 percent), Thurston four from 23 (17.4 percent) and Payne four from 29 (13.8 percent).

The Herald reported that “Their woes on the road have long been a source of frustration for the Cowboys, who over the years have used various measures in a bid to turn things around”.

Players have spent much of this week preparing in Sydney’s east and acclimatising to the cool (and possibly wet) conditions that they are likely to encounter at the Sydney Football Stadium on Saturday night.

Ironically, the first team from North Queensland that toured the south way back in 1934 had little trouble achieving victory in their first outing in Sydney, beating Balmain’s first-grade side in an invitation match at Sydney Sports Ground. The touring side was drawn together from northern centres such as Cairns, Mackay, Innisfail, Townsville, Home Hill and Babinda and made the arduous southern trip by passenger train, a journey of several days’ duration. They arrived in Sydney to cool weather and drizzling rain but made light work of the Tigers, winning 25-9.

The Daily Telegraph praised the effort of the visitors in overcoming numerous hurdles. “The match served to prove how the game has spread, for the northerners, though so far removed from the big centres of football, demonstrated that they were well versed in the finer points of rugby league. The tourists were playing on ‘foreign’ soil, and also laboured under many disadvantages, that made their performance all the more outstanding. Their ranks comprised men drawn from centres many miles apart, and they were playing together for the first time while the season was yet in its infancy. Lengthy train travel was also expected to help in their undoing, but they rose above all obstacles. It was disappointing that the elements should have been so unkind. After making such a long trip the North Queenslanders deserved a better reward.”

Several members of the touring team had gained valuable experience playing against the English side of 1932, including the captain, Harold Burns, a multi-talented sportsman who had previously kept wicket for the Queensland Sheffield Shield team. Burns’ centre partner was Gordon ‘Scotty’ Macrae, who later earned a contract with English club Oldham and represented Queensland eight times before coaching the Maroons in the 1950s.

These North Queensland trailblazers, who pre-dated the Cowboys by more than half a century, could have been overawed at their first taste of the “Big Smoke” and easily deceived by their competition-hardened opponents. They could have used the circumstances of mind-numbing travel and unfamiliar conditions as an excuse and if they had been defeated, no-one would have been surprised.

There are parallels with the obstacles that the Cowboys will face against Manly at the SFS. Finishing seventh on the ladder, Neil Henry’s men will be outsiders against the second-placed Sea Eagles. Most pundits will consider that wet and cool conditions will suit the Sydney side against an opponent with an appalling record in the big city. If the Cowboys are beaten, few will be surprised.

Now, it’s up to Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott and Co to evoke the spirit of the pioneers.