The bond uniting Cowboys' young guns
Making your NRL debut in New Zealand against the ferocious Warriors pack just days after your 19th birthday may seem the ultimate definition of bravery but Cowboys young gun Coen Hess has shown even greater courage to speak out about the bond uniting North Queensland's under-20s team.
With their 36-24 win over the Broncos on Saturday night the Cowboys have earned a direct path to the preliminary final in a fortnight's time where they will play the winner of this weekend's clash between the Sea Eagles and Wests Tigers.
The Cowboys were pipped for the Holden Cup minor premiership by the Panthers in Round 26 but were rewarded for their excellent season by having three players selected in the Holden Cup Team of the Year on Monday.
Hess, try-scoring phenomenon Gideon Mosby and Panthers-bound front-rower Viliame Kikau were all included in the cream of the 2015 crop with Kikau unable to attend due to a knee injury he picked up on Saturday night.
Given a taste of life in the NRL at the Dick Smith NRL Auckland Nines in February, Hess made his NRL debut in Round 24, scoring a try in the Cowboys' 50-16 thumping of the Warriors.
But as much as he is lauded for what he can do playing rugby league, Hess should be applauded for the openness in which he discussed the tragedies that have befallen the rugby league community in North Queensland in recent years.
Regan Grieve was the latest young life lost in late January and speaking unprompted after the win on Saturday night, Hess said the memory of a mate who was supposed to be part of their group is pushing the team to achieve great things.
"We've had a few massive blows to us this year. We've lost a few boys up there to mental illness and that type of stuff so that just gives us a bit more determination to keep striving," Hess said.
"Before every game we like to say, 'Do this one for Grievesy' or those type of boys. It just gives us an extra boost I guess, just trying to play for them out of respect.
"It's a tight-knit group so losing one of our boys was a massive blow."
Cowboys Holden Cup coach Todd Payten said that the emergence of Hess into the senior ranks saw him develop into a leader at the under-age level and at the same time gave his teammates the confidence to strive for such heights.
"Since [his NRL debut] particularly he's grown a foot taller and is a bit more confident," Payten said.
"He's always been a leader by his actions but he's starting to really talk within the group.
"The boys around him, seeing him play that first grade game gave them a big boost as well."
You would imagine that a try on debut would be cause for celebration for a teenager but – as is the responsibility of all players in the National Youth Competition – Hess was back at work the very next day at Brothers Leagues Club in Townsville.
He spends the majority of his shifts greeting footy fanatics at the front door of the club but with a 190-centimetre, 112-kilogram frame has been approached by a local security firm to see if he would fancy a career change.
"The security company up there tried to persuade me a few times to take a role there," said Hess, who signed a three-year contract extension with the Cowboys mid-season.
"It's a bit of a juggling act. Sometimes I'll have to call in to work real late just because I've been called into NRL training but the staff at Brothers are really good and look after me.
"I'm on the front door so I get all the football fanatics coming in and talking to me and I love it.
"It makes work real easy just talking to all the public."