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There was more than a hint of irony that Kyle Feldt and Zac Santo played such critical roles in securing North Queensland's first piece of silverware at the inaugural Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines.
Three years ago, Santo – a diminutive head-geared winger who looked all the world like the last kid picked – scored the try that brought his team level with the all-conquering Warriors in the dying stages of the 2011 under-20s grand final. Feldt, the leading pointscorer in the competition, then missed the attempt at conversion and the New Zealanders went on to win in golden-point extra-time.
For a club that had featured in only one grand final previously – the 2005 NRL Grand Final – it was a cruel temptation of what it feels like to taste success. So as Feldt performed aerial acrobatics in Auckland capable of earning high marks from Winter Olympic judges in Sochi, Cowboys co-captain Johnathan Thurston was back home in Townsville performing some impressive leaps of his own.
"I was running around the loungeroom like a lunatic, scaring [daughter] Frankie, cheering the boys on. It was an exciting day for the club and well done to all the boys, especially captain courageous, Gavin Cooper, bringing home the club's first silverware," Thurston said.
Despite a hamstring complaint that kept him out of the Auckland Nines final against the Broncos, Feldt has been named in the Cowboys squad for their final trial against the Titans in Toowoomba on Saturday night.
Curtis Rona – who scored two tries in the final – has been rested this weekend but the breakout performances of the three youngsters last weekend has Thurston believing that the club can recover from the devastating loss of fullback Lachlan Coote with a season-ending knee injury.
"We've always known that Feldty is a great finisher," Thurston said. "Obviously the leading pointscorer in the NYC competition and you've seen what he's been able to do when he has been given an opportunity in first grade. He's been able to cross the white line and score a few tries for us.
"Our outside backs have been great the last few years and it's great to see that Feldty has come through the system here. That's what the Cowboys have been all about, giving North Queenslanders a chance of playing in front of their home crowds and their family.
"We're pretty strong on the edges with [Feldt and Rona] there who are over 100 kilos each, can jump, they're great in the air and they both can find the tryline which is what you need on the edges."
Named the breakout player of the tournament, Feldt's spectacular put-downs delivered some of the most replayed moments of the Auckland Nines and he says he has put the disappointment of his missed conversion in 2011 behind him.
"As a player it's the most painful [memory] but I've kind of tried to put it away now," Feldt said. "I've moved on and tried to set better aspirations, to make an NRL Grand Final and to get an NRL starting spot."
With Antonio Winterstein locked into the left wing, Feldt and Rona are vying for the vacant right wing position which leaves Santo, Javid Bowen and Matthew Wright all pushing to be fullback for Round 1 against the Raiders.
"Defensively they no doubt need to be on the ball and bringing those kick returns back with a bit of venom," said Thurston.
"They're chewing up a lot of metres on the kick returns that our big boys don't have to run back as far. Our back five were great last year and whoever fills that fullback role will no doubt do a good job for us."