Cowboys 2015 season review
"It's probably fitting".
Coach Paul Green pretty much summed it up straight after their 17-16 Grand Final win on Sunday night.
It's probably fitting that the football gods finally showed them some mercy.
It's probably fitting that Johnathan Thurston finally gets his reward after a decade of dominating the sport.
It's probably fitting that, for a club that embraces its roots more than any other in the competition, it was the combination of born-and-bred North Queenslanders that saved a part of Thurston's legacy.
And, of course, as Green declared, "It's probably fitting given how we've played at different times this year. It shows the fighting spirit amongst our team. We know we're never out of a game."
But that fighting spirit did not come naturally to this group at the start of the year.
Three straight defeats – each more debilitating than the last – cast grave doubts over one of the competition's favourites.
Just one game into the season the Courier Mail thought it would be a good idea print in big, bold letters on their back page, "YOU STINK", following their 28-4 opening night shock to the system at the hands of eventual minor premiers the Sydney Roosters.
North Queensland went on to lose at home to Newcastle in dramatic circumstances, which served as a precursor to arguably the club's lowest point in a decade when Brisbane towelled them up 44-22 at Suncorp Stadium in Round 3.
Like a child's baby tooth holding on for dear life, the Cowboys' season was at breaking strain.
Who knows how the season would have panned out had they lost to Melbourne way back in Round 4?
But just like coach Green, we don't like to delve into hypotheticals.
The fact is that North Queensland became just the second team in 74 games to win from a half-time deficit of 12 points or greater against a Storm side coached by Craig Bellamy.
Thurston slotted two field goals that night to both force extra time and win in extra time, and in just 45 minutes the pain of the prior 280 had been vanquished.
From there the Cowboys rode an 11-game win streak followed by a steady run into the finals.
Doubts still lingered following three defeats (Sharks, Rabbitohs and Storm) in four weeks on finals eve, but it seemed to be all part of the plan for a headstrong group of men led by one of the greatest to ever lace a boot.
Where they excelled: Scoring was never an issue for North Queensland, who finished a solitary try behind the Sydney Roosters for most point scored in the regular season. They had strike power all over the part, led by by two of the best attacking players in the NRL in Thurston and his halves partner Michael Morgan. A platform was laid for those two by a three-headed monster in the form of big men Matt Scott, James Tamou and Lock of the Year Jason Taumalolo. The first-grade rebirth of tryscoring sensation Kyle Feldt signalled the beginning of a more balanced team where the right edge was just as dangerous as the left. Speed man Justin O'Neill instantly became comfortable with Feldt, who returned with a hat-trick in Round 24 at Mt Smart Stadium.
Where they struggled: North Queensland's goal-line defence was at one point softer than a stick of microwaved butter, and was exposed in Round 16 when the Sharks scored 24 straight points to halt the Cowboys' winning streak at 11. But the Cowboys simply dug in and peaked at the right time of year until it was no longer a problem, having conceded just 11 points per game in their four-game finals series. They also rid ill-timed penalties from their system at just the right time as well.
Missing in Action: A team can be the most talented in the league, but it still needs its share of luck to win a premiership. Thanks to their heavily-publicised high performance unit, North Queensland were consistently one of the league's healthier clubs through the year. Between a small casualty ward and players returning from injury either earlier than expected or right on time, it allowed continuity to build within the group. Exciting centre Tautau Moga was the only season-ending casualty, with an ACL tear suffered during Representative Round. Small scares propped up, such as Scott's troublesome neck, Tamou's frightful night in Auckland, Morgan's race against the clock to make the finals and Taumalolo's four-week layoff for a knee injury; but all things considered, in such a rough era of the game the Cowboys escaped relatively unscathed.
Turning Point: The aforementioned Round 4 clash with Melbourne at 1300SMILES Stadium featured one of the most abrupt changes of a team's season trajectory that the game has ever seen. We are still yet to fully uncover exactly what coach Green said at half-time that night, but it must have been special. Trailing 16-4 at the break, the Cowboys looked the stronger side out of the sheds yet took 20 minutes to register points with a well-crafted move to the left which saw Antonio Winterstein touch down in his return game after a leave of absence following the death of his younger brother Francis. It was no doubt one of the things spurring the Cowboys on to a premiership. After Thurston snapped an 80th-minute field goal, the comeback was complete when he did it again five minutes into golden point. In just another example of footballing fate, the Cowboys' season ended where it begun – with a JT one-pointer.
2016 Crystal Ball: There is no Cowboy except for Thurston over the age of 30 and with emerging stars the likes of Morgan, Taumalolo, Granville and Feldt, there is no reason North Queensland won't vie for the title again next year. Stalwart second-rower Gavin Cooper told NRL.com after their Grand Final win that the club has something special. Townsville has rarely been a player's first-choice destination but combining the improved culture coach Green has cultivated, the talent at his disposal and solid leadership from the top, the league and its players are starting to take notice. As long as Green stays in the top job, the Cowboys' lackadaisical reputation will be buried in the past.
Conclusion: Season 2015 was a seven-month rollercoaster. Too many times did North Queensland snatch victory from the jaws of defeat. It sounds funny to say, but having a 'season on the brink' just three weeks in did the Cowboys some good; where else would they have found that mental fortitude to fight through the full 80 minutes and beyond? To quote Muhammad Ali, "Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul and come up with the extra ounce of power it takes to win when the match is even."
Congratulations, North Queensland, the 2015 NRL premiers.
SEASON STATISTICS (including finals)
Home Record: 9-4
Away Record: 11-4
Longest Winning Streak: 11 matches (Rd 4-15)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Rd 1-3)
Players Used: 28
Tries Scored: 119
Tries Conceded: 85