Displaying unshackled, off-the-cuff brilliance, Cowboys have finally rediscovered the confidence and belief in their game and will prove hard to handle in this year’s finals series – should they beat the Wests Tigers in Townsville on Saturday and actually qualify for the playoffs, that is.
That’s the belief of highly experienced North Queensland centre Brent Tate, who says his eighth-placed team, weighed down by expectation earlier this season, is desperate to provide a fitting farewell to retiring legend Matt Bowen.
“There weren’t many wins before this run,” Tate tells NRL.com of the feeling in the side that’s currently on a five-match winning streak.
“At the end of the day who knows where confidence goes and where it comes from, but we’re certainly playing with a bit of confidence at the moment and I think the difference from the start of the year to now is the expectation has dropped – we’ve been unshackled and that’s how we’re playing footy.
“It’s been good. Obviously it’s always easy to come to training when you’re winning but it has been a bit of a tough place to play this year – we probably haven’t handled the expectation real well but the last few weeks we’ve been playing without that expectation and I guess just riding the wave we’re on – I just the attitude’s been just carefree footy and see where it takes us… and that’s the attitude we’ll continue to adopt moving forward.”
In the past five rounds five-eighth Johnathan Thurston and fullback Bowen have hit top gear for the Cowboys, with the dynamic duo’s fine form catapulting the Queenslanders up the table and into the top eight. This week, though, the Cowboys face the Wests Tigers in a crucial clash. If North Queensland win they qualify for the finals – if they lose they’re likely eliminated. Tate’s expecting a mighty challenge from their 14th-placed opponents, a team that last week lost 32-18 to the ladder-leading Rabbitohs.
“I think they’re a really dangerous team,” Tate, who has played 215 NRL matches in a career that began in 2001, says.
“Their outside backs, they’ve been playing some really good footy. Against Souths, they were really in a position to win that game with six minutes to go and they’ve got nothing to lose – there’s plenty on the line for us. We’ve got to go out and approach it the way we have the past few weeks and if we do that I’m confident we’ll be thereabouts.
“I don’t think there’s any reason to change how we’ve been playing… we’ve just been enjoying going out there and working for each other and it’s been working… it’ll be a bonus if we make the finals but we’ll just ride the wave and see where it takes us.
“A few weeks ago it wasn’t a nice place to be looking forward but at the moment we’ve got destiny in our own hands and we’ve got a big job this week and hopefully we can get it done.”
The match has particular significance for Bowen as well as the Wests Tigers’ departing playmaker Benji Marshall.
“[Benji is dangerous] and he ran the ball more last week and they’ve got nothing to lose – that’s why they were throwing the footy around,” Tate says.
“We all know when the Tigers are in that sort of mood they’re a dangerous team, but in saying that we’ve got a little man here (Bowen) who is as influential as any player’s been at the club and it’s his last game [in Townsville] and it’s really important we do the right thing and get a win for him.”
Tate paid special tribute to Bowen, who he classifies as not only a club legend but as an icon for his people and the game in general.
“I’ve been thinking about it the past few days with what’s coming up and I think the significance of what he’s done up here is huge – it’s probably immeasurable,” Tate says of the 268-game Cowboy they call ‘Mango’.
“Every time you go to a promo or something the first thing the kids all ask is ‘Where’s Matty Bowen’, and when you walk out of the sheds after a game that’s the first thing you’re asked by fans, too. Amongst kids and indigenous people up here and the average supporter, he is a living legend.
“He’s a once-in-a-generation player, too – there’s no-one you can compare to Matty Bowen and what we can do. Some of the things he does are just freakish and he does them a lot of the time.
“I’d love to see a huge crowd here on the weekend to farewell him – I think that’d be fitting for what he’s done for the club. He’s been here 12 or 13 years, put his heart and soul into the place and given Cowboys fans and rugby league fans in general so much joy over the years.
“It’d be nice to farewell him with a grand final win, wouldn’t it, but I haven’t been bothered to look too far forward at the moment. I think I learned my lesson last year, getting beaten by Manly in the semis… you’ve just got to get the job done that week.
“The way I’m looking at it, wherever we end up is going to be a bonus because a few weeks ago we weren’t looking like playing in the finals at all.”