Cowboys' Road To The Finals
Trophy cabinet gets some long-awaited use
When he was appointed as their new coach Cowboys fans would have dreamed of the success Paul Green may bring but they could not have imagined that in the club's 20th year there would be a trophy in the cabinet before the season even kicked off. Blessed with big, mobile men in James Tamou, Jason Taumalolo, Tariq Sims and Gavin Cooper, the Cowboys were able to bring something of a power game to the razzle dazzle of the inaugural Auckland Nines while youngsters such as Kyle Feldt and Curtis Rona set about making names for themselves with spectacular try-scoring exploits. Despite losing two of their pool games to Manly (17-8) and the Warriors (28-23), the Cowboys snuck into the finals on a superior points differential where they defeated the Panthers in the quarter-finals. They then shut-out the Warriors 8-0 in the semi-final before getting the better of the Broncos in the final. There were joyous scenes in the sheds after the final but for two players in particular the weekend would dramatically alter their respective seasons.
Coote's pain is Morgan's gain
As can so often be the case with ACL injuries the incident itself looked innocuous but a tackle by Manly legend Steve Menzies in North Queensland's opening game of the Auckland Nines ended Lachlan Coote's season before it had even begun. Coote's roommate in Auckland, Anthony Mitchell, took his place in the squad for the second day of action but the most significant change would come in a trial game against the Titans in Toowoomba. While many expected Green to test the credentials of youngsters such as Curtis Rona or Javid Bowen, the rookie coach thrust Michael Morgan into the role, and his impact was immediate. Despite never having played in the position prior Morgan was safe under the high ball, ran with power and his former life in the halves served the Cowboys' attack well. He is the only Cowboy to have started every game this season and such has been his influence he was invited into the Queensland Maroons camp as 19th man prior to Game Three and has more try assists in 2014 than all but three players in the NRL.
Tackle of the season
Have we mentioned yet how good a season Michael Morgan is having? But did we talk about his defence? Our bad. Ranked second in the NRL for try saves with 11, Morgan came up with one of the tackles of the season when a rampaging Matt Gillett appeared certain to get the Broncos on the front foot with a try in just the fourth minute of their Round 9 clash in Townsville. Coming back hard on the angle and charging on to a Josh Hoffman pass, Gillett broke through the Cowboys' defensive line five metres out but when he tried to step on the inside of Morgan the Cowboys' fullback hit and he stuck, holding Gillett up in an impressive show of strength. A few minutes later Morgan himself was held up over the Broncos' line – ironically by Gillett, and then made a searching run to set up a try for Kane Linnett midway through the first half. It was an impressive display at both ends of the field and has been a feature of his game all season.
Gosford gaffe unveils Green monster
After a 2-4 start to the season the Cowboys headed to Gosford in Round 7 determined to make a statement against the Sea Eagles and at 20-10 with less than 15 minutes remaining, Johnathan Thurston appeared to have engineered a massive upset. But the result would be turned on its head when in asking for a review of a Kieran Foran try in the 71st minute, referee Gavin Badger uttered the words, "We have a try, check for obstruction". Jamie Buhrer unquestionably stopped in the defensive line and impeded Ray Thompson, but the try was awarded, prompting coach Paul Green to declare he would "walk nude through Pitt Street" if it was a legitimate try. It wasn't and he didn't but the Sea Eagles still got the two points.
Rock bottom in Newcastle
A 36-28 loss in Round 15 doesn't look like a disaster on paper but for the Cowboys it represented a pivotal moment in their season. By the end of 80 minutes on a Monday night in Newcastle they were battered and bruised and searching for a way to take their defensive attitude at home with them on the road. With less than 20 minutes remaining the Cowboys trailed Newcastle 28-6 and while they scored four tries in the closing 18 minutes to give themselves a sniff of victory, the reality was that they were a well-beaten side on the night. But rather than lambast his players coach Paul Green spoke of their courage to fight until the end despite a growing injury toll and they responded immediately, knocking over South Sydney the next week 20-18... and losing only twice since.
Mother of all hidings
It is said that you can use statistics to prove anything but have a read of these and tell us if there's any reason why the Cowboys' shouldn't have smashed the Wests Tigers 64-6 in Round 22: North Queensland had 64 per cent of possession, spent 60 minutes of the game in the Tigers' half, had 19 more sets than their opposition, made 14 line breaks to two and ran for almost 1000 more metres. Matthew Wright scored a hat-trick in the opening 12 minutes against a Tigers team reeling from off-field crises and a mass of injuries with the 58-point drubbing surpassing their 60-8 win over South Sydney in 2003 as the club's largest ever win. Tautau Moga, Antonio Winterstein and Jason Taumalolo all scored doubles in the 12-try mauling with Matt Scott running for 227 metres up front. It was like a humpback whale knocking around a goldfish but that didn't make it any less enjoyable for the victors.
A second bunny boilover
Their commanding win over the Rabbitohs in Round 21 last season sparked a six-game winning streak that earned them a finals berth but the manner of the Cowboys' 22-10 win in Round 24 this year stamped them as genuine premiership threats. Eight weeks after a 20-18 win in Townsville that was closer on the scoreboard than it was in reality, the North Queensland forward pack again muscled up against the acclaimed Rabbitohs' big men and gave Johnathan Thurston the platform to completely dictate proceedings. A perfect 19-from-19 completion rate in the first half was converted into a 16-0 advantage and when they were first to score again in the second half a 22-point deficit was insurmountable to a Rabbitohs team that had won their past four on the trot. It highlighted some vulnerabilities in the competition favourites but should have also sent a warning to other teams as to what the Cowboys are capable of.
Emergence of JT3
The only surprise as to the devastating displays of Jason Taumalolo this year is perhaps that it has taken five seasons in the top grade to deliver. Just 17 years of age when he made his debut in 2010, Taumalolo has played all but one game this season (21 in the starting team) and his 80 tackle breaks are the most by a Cowboys player, his 300 total tackles also a club high. The high-powered charges on the edges for which he came to prominence have been ever present but it is the consistent nature of his contributions that will have most pleased coach Paul Green. The talent was never in question so the challenge for Green was how to cultivate it; one year in and he is already reaping rich rewards.
Breaking the Sydney stranglehold
Almost eight years between victories at where NRL Telstra Premierships are ultimately decided, the Cowboys registered their first win at ANZ Stadium against the Bulldogs in Round 20 and then backed it up with their defeat of the Rabbitohs a month later. Having not registered a win anywhere on the road in 2014 until their 36-18 Round 19 victory over Cronulla at Remondis Stadium, getting rid of any sense of a Sydney hoodoo a month out from the finals was a significant weight off their shoulders.
Centres suffer unfortunate fates
Few hearts in rugby league didn't go out to Maroons centre Brent Tate when he suffered yet another serious knee injury in Origin II, confirmation of a fourth ACL injury ending his season and ultimately his career. Having only signed a one-year contract extension the month prior to the Origin Series, Tate announced his decision to retire in the lead-up to North Queensland's Round 26 win over Manly and was given a rousing send-off by the 22,000-plus fans in attendance. It's been a mix of highs and lows for Matthew Wright also who, having been thrown a career lifeline by the Cowboys at the start of the season, had his year brought to a premature end when he accepted the back-dated suspension from ASADA stemming from the supplements program at the Sharks back in 2011. Wright had struck up a formidable combination with fellow new recruit Tautau Moga and scored nine tries from 17 appearances.