Night the Cowboys came of age, Part I
It was supposed to be Paul Green's swansong but instead the 1995 Rothmans Medal winner lost his place in the Broncos team for the 2004 Finals Series to the marketing manager at Kedron-Wavell Services Club.
That was just one of a string of unlikely scenarios that all had to take place before the North Queensland Cowboys defeated the Brisbane Broncos for the first time in their history in Week Two of the finals a decade ago.
As the Cowboys prepare to take a further step from the shadow cast by big brother Bronco at 1300SMILES Stadium on Saturday night, it is timely to look back on what exactly transpired before their 10-0 finals victory in the Elimination Final on September 18, 2004.
At the end of the regular season the Broncos had won four more games than their northern rivals in finishing in third spot on the ladder but had their finals campaign thrown into disarray when they were upset by the Storm 31-14 at Suncorp Stadium. Two hours later, the Cowboys threw the whole premiership into a spin when a Matt Sing hat-trick saw them upset the second-placed Bulldogs 30-22.
In the retelling of what happened next over the past 10 years it is often cited that Broncos coach Wayne Bennett suggested that rather than meeting at the allocated venue in Sydney that the game be played in Townsville, a slight stretch according to Cowboys football manager Peter Parr.
"The Broncos' first suggestion was to play the game in Brisbane and our view on that was, 'Why should they get a second final in Brisbane after they'd lost their final there?'" Parr recalled. "So we rejected it and said, 'We'll see you in Sydney', but then they came back after that with the suggestion that we play the game in Townsville, which was generous of them, but it's incorrect to say that was their first choice."
Ben Ikin had retired from the NRL at the end of the 2003 season at just 26 years of age but when he received his first pay cheque as the marketing manager at Kedron-Wavell Services Club, realised life in the real world came at a much more expensive price.
He signed on to play with the Toowoomba Clydesdales in the then Queensland Cup for a nominal fee and when the Broncos' got light on for players through the Origin period, Bennett called on his son-in-law to make some cameo appearances.
"There were a couple of times through the year where they got stuck through Origin and he just asked if I could jump up and fill a hole," Ikin told NRL.com of a season where he played nine NRL games. "I said, 'Absolutely, not a drama.'
"My contract got registered late and it was for bugger all, I think it was for a thousand bucks a game but it was more than what I was getting paid at the Clydesdales!
"It was a weird season but I had so much fun because footy was more about the fun than my career. I'd moved on, taken a full-time gig, was playing with the Clydesdales, training after work hours, moved into the role [as media manager] with the Origin side and I'd actually played in the Series the year before."
Starting at hooker for just the second time in his career was not meant to be seen as a tactical masterstroke by Bennett but nevertheless ended the career of Green after 162 first grade games, 10 games for Queensland and two Super League Tests.
"That was the end of my season. It was a pretty ordinary week for me to be honest – it was not a game I wanted to miss," Green recalled earlier this week as he prepares the current crop of Cowboys for a sudden-death final.
But for former Cowboys players such as Josh Hannay, recalling that historic occasion has never gotten old even after 10 years of retelling the same story over and over again.
With experienced coach Graham Murray at the helm, Hannay remembers the squad being encouraged to soak up the atmosphere that enveloped the city rather than being shielded away from the hype.
"It was really hard to be shielded from the hype that surrounded that game because we train at the stadium and that’s where they sell the tickets, from the ticket box next door," Hannay says. "We had people lined up from kilometres; honestly, people camped out from the night before. So it was hard for us to shield ourselves from that build-up and to just see what was going on behind the scenes. It sort of heightened the anticipation for that game.
"I say this a lot, it’s a credit to both Graham Murray and Neil Henry, and the club as a whole that throughout that whole period where we went on a real run towards the end of the year to make the finals, then we beat Canterbury in Week One and then the whole Broncos thing that night, they never shielded us from enjoying the moment and they never tried to hide us from all the build-up. They really allowed us to enjoy it and soak up every last minute of it.
"I guess the moment could have been lost had we not been allowed to enjoy it as much as we did and I think to a degree Graham and Neil both understood we were a playing group that played our best when we were allowed to relax and not be too uptight and it really worked for us."
Despite their coach and organisation allowing the match to be played deep in enemy territory, Ikin said the Broncos players responded positively to the shift, especially considering they had been unbeaten in nine previous visits to Townsville since 1995.
"We were fairly confident going up there. The Broncos had got the job done so many times in North Queensland before so travelling up there was a non-issue," said Ikin, who now sits on the Cowboys' board of directors.
"I think you'll find that was a time when the Cowboys would acknowledge that there were more Cowboys supporters than Broncos supporters at the ground. The Broncos used to turn up in North Queensland and their fans would dominate the crowd but on that particular night it was like the Cowboys had come of age."
In part II at midday tomorrow, the night that everything changed.