How the Cowboys rebuilt a North Queensland empire
Five years ago the only thing keeping the Cowboys from a fourth wooden spoon was the stripping of Melbourne's competition points after salary cap infractions.
It capped a horror three years for the North Queensland club that had finished 15th, 12th and 15th between 2008 and 2010, but those two clubs are the only two to have appeared in every finals series since then.
The Cowboys have endured their share of turmoil over the last few years; three-straight contentious conclusions to finals campaigns and important names suffering serious injury, the likes of which forced Brent Tate's premature retirement.
Even superstar halfback and four-time Dally M Medal winner Johnathan Thurston considered leaving in the quest for a premiership in a more likely location.
While on the surface the Cowboys seemed stuck in the mud, plans to ascend the mountain were actually in full swing, and the path to success getting clearer.
Cowboys football manager and then-CEO Peter Parr recalls a series of meetings in 2010 with himself, incoming CEO Peter Jourdain and coach Neil Henry as the birth of the latest Cowboys era which has seen a return to the game's biggest stage a decade after their maiden berth.
"At the end of 2010 we made a lot of heavy decisions around the club," Parr told NRL.com.
"We only won five games in 2010 so it was a big fall from grace because we played finals in 2004, '05 and '07, then we missed three years in a row so that was hurtful.
"Since News (Limited) took over the club halfway through 2001 we've probably gone through a couple of rebuilds – one at the end of 2001 and then one at the end of 2010.
"We built the first rebuild on some really good young talent – we had (Matt) Bowen, (Aaron) Payne and (Ty) Williams and guys like that – then we brought in guys like (Paul) Rauhihi and we had (Paul) Bowman as well. We brought in the hard noses like (Kevin) Campion, (Travis) Norton and (Luke) O'Donnell.
"Then at the end of 2010 we had some good young players again and brought in guys like Kalifa (Fai Fai Loa) and Tariq Sims, along with the real pros as well.
"We let a lot of players go at the end of 2010 and brought in new guys with a view that we wanted to try and get a consistent footy team that won more than it lost."
"The board was looking for success and to their credit they gave us some support with funding around the footy department.
"Johnathan (Thurston) and Matthew Scott grew as leaders around that time and we started to get the balance right again.
"We changed the structure of the footy department, we brought in a High Performance Unit and we started investing a little bit more in development."
Headed by club legend Paul Bowman, it is the same High Performance Unit that has been credited for the Cowboys' improved road performance, winning nine of 12 away games during the season compared with three of 12 last year.
On the young talent front, the North Queensland area has always possessed a rich production line, but nurturing those young men into professionals wearing Cowboys' colours was another matter entirely.
With increased funding into the football department the Cowboys could establish a presence in the National Youth Competition after the Young Guns and Townsville Stingers, who featured in the Queensland Cup, were the only Cowboys feeder clubs back in the day.
Nowadays keeping players in the area are three Intrust Super Cup teams (Townsville Blackhawks, Northern Pride and Mackay Cutters) along with the U20s who made this year's Preliminary Finals.
"Local talent has always been a difficult equation because it's such a competitive market. North Queensland is seen as such a fertile area for good young talent," Parr said.
"Then players get agents from a young age, so just because you have that local talent it is not as simple as people think it is. We went to the board a couple of years ago and spent more resources underneath our Under-20s and the board supported us on that.
"About 10 years ago we would lose junior players on two things: either on money, because there was no junior comp and the U20s comes with a salary cap, so we would get blown out of the water on money; the other thing was we would lose players because of career paths.
"We had the NRL team and the Young Guns playing in the Queensland Cup, and if you were a good 17-year-old and not ready for the Queensland Cup then we would have to place you in the local (Townsville) competition, whereas they could go to Sydney and play Jersey Flegg or SG Ball and have a proper career path. We now have as good a career path as other clubs.
"So with the U20s here those two main reasons we lost junior talent were no longer there. And now we're spending more resources in academies, and we've got three ex-legends (Micheal Luck, Ashley Graham and Aaron Payne) running that program for us.
"This is the work of a lot of people, and I think you'd struggle to find a club that is having the success that we are."
Taking on the Broncos in a Grand Final showdown on Sunday is just the tip of the iceberg for the club and the region which saw the Townsville Blackhawks into the Intrust Super Cup Grand Final, Townsville Stingers U16 and U18 sides crowned Queensland champions and Kirwan State High School winning the national schoolboys title.
Administrators the likes of Parr, Henry and Jourdain have set up an era of success, but Parr says it simply would not happen without the players.
"Neil Henry and I and others at the club, Peter Jourdian when he came in, we tried to put together a plan. But obviously every time you have success the players are the main ingredient," he said.
"At the end of the day, you can't blink in this competition.
"If you stand still you are going backwards."