Night the Cowboys came of age, Part II
It was their first Finals Series, they had snuck into the top eight on the back of a 12-11-1 season and in 16 previous attempts they had never defeated the Brisbane Broncos. So even though they were at home in Townsville, North Queensland were major underdogs to progress past Week Two of the 2004 Finals Series.
Perhaps if the Broncos had not been so successful in their nine previous visits to the north, coach Wayne Bennett may not have extended the olive branch of the first all-Queensland final be played in Townsville but over the course of 80 minutes the way the Cowboys were viewed by locals and the competition as a whole changed forever.
Given they had finished no better than 11th in a complete premiership competition (they were 10th and last in Super League in 1997), it is understandable that footy fans in Queensland's north had retained their original allegiances to the Broncos dating back to 1988.
When the Cowboys were introduced in 1995 the Broncos already had two premierships to their name and were the source of great pride not only in Brisbane but throughout the entire state.
But when the Cowboys stunned the NRL by knocking off the second-placed Bulldogs 30-22 in Week One of the finals, a change swept over Townsville and the entire region that players such as Josh Hannay were quick to pick up on.
"Up until that night there really was only one side involved in the derby. It was always all about Brisbane and we were just there to make a game of it, and that includes our home games," Hannay told NRL.com.
"We’d sell it out which was great but the majority of the people were there to watch the star-studded Brisbane side, so I just remember that night, for the first time in the club’s history, everyone was there to see the Cowboys win that night.
"There was a sea of blue and yellow so for the first time in history we felt like people were rooting for us in terms of that derby. I think it just changed the whole feel around us as a club."
Far from the free-flowing nature of their win over the Bulldogs a week prior, this game proved to be a dour affair with a sole try to Cowboys five-eighth David Myles and two goals by Hannay.
The 10-0 final scoreline was the first time the Broncos had been kept scoreless in three years and only the second time in the club's history that the Cowboys' had achieved such a feat and North Queensland hooker Aaron Payne was right in the thick of it.
"[My best memory] was the intensity of the game and the speed of it," Payne told NRL.com. "It was a notch up from a normal game and defensively our willingness to not let them across the line. Guys were just scrambling the whole night to shut them down.
"Whenever we have played the Broncos there’s a real competitive rivalry there, but there is a lot of respect as well. I can only talk as far as how the Cowboys are but I’d say the Broncos would say the same in that it’s a game you look forward to and you have got the utmost respect for them and the game is played in the right spirit.
"There’s no dirty stuff involved or anything like that, you have a lot of respect for them and that’s how that game was played.
"I remember looking into the crowd and seeing people nearly sitting on top of people and the atmosphere that night was just unbelievable; it still gives me goose-bumps talking about it. That was a night that I think a lot of Broncos fans became Cowboys fans.
"There were a lot of people who were diehard Broncos fans because they were the only Queensland team in the competition for so long and we were their second team and still supported us but I think that night turned a lot of people and they thought, The Cowboys are my team now."
Hannay had a try disallowed in the second half – "I genuinely thought I’d scored it and I celebrated accordingly" – and despite a Broncos team boasting the attacking calibre of Lockyer, Hunt, Tate and Tallis, the Cowboys defence held firm, their wall reinforced by the chants of 24,989 fans.
And when the full-time siren sounded, many of those 25,000 ended up back at the Cowboys Leagues Club to celebrate a place in a Preliminary Final.
"I remember being in the hotel room after the game," recalls Fox Sports commentator and Cowboys board member Ben Ikin who started that game at hooker for the Broncos, his final NRL match.
"I went out for a couple of beers but got home pretty early and the celebrations were happening in the Cowboys Leagues Club across the road. All the crowd had gone back to the Leagues Club, there were speeches and it was almost like it was in the room next door. So you kind of had this reminder for the next eight hours."
Since that night the Broncos still hold the balance of power with 13 wins from the past 21 clashes but Hannay has no doubt that the attitude towards the Cowboys changed following that final a decade ago.
"It certainly changed the landscape for that period of time. We followed it on the next year by making the grand final, so we certainly, in that period of time, stepped out of the Broncos’ shadow," Hannay said.
"Not for one moment would I suggest we surpassed Brisbane in terms of our pecking order in the scheme of things – they’re the most successful side of the last 20 years and we are yet to win a comp – but that night and that period of time I think we took some big steps towards getting some credibility in the competition.
"They were our unicorn, we couldn’t get over that hurdle and despite the fact that we beat Canterbury the week before who then went on to win the competition, Brisbane were still that Holy Grail.
"We had never beaten them, so we never got ahead of ourselves because we just didn’t have the right to. They were still our bogy team right up until that point."