Cowboys stunned by regional response
Driving four hours to a Cowboys game from his home town of Hughenden was something Justin O'Neill assumed every North Queensland footy fan did growing up but even he was stunned by the response to the premiers' tour of regional areas on Sunday.
In the space of 11 hours 12 members of the Cowboys' grand final squad attended civic receptions in Mackay, Mount Isa and Cairns with an estimate of more than 20,000 fans turning out across the day to fete their Telstra Premiership heroes.
It represents the start of what will be a 12-month premiership celebration in the north of the state with plans for players to take the Provan-Summons Trophy as some extra luggage when they visit their home towns over the course of the year.
Growing up in a town with a population of little more than 1,000 people, the O'Neill family would drive the four hours east to Townsville to watch the Cowboys play and grand final try-scorer Justin said it was a wonderful opportunity to reward their loyal fans.
"I know how much the small towns make a great effort to get to the Cowboys games and it was good to see us repay the favour by getting out to some of the local communities and really show how much we value their support," O'Neill told NRL.com.
"I probably didn't know any better at the time and thought this was just what everyone does but I wouldn't take anything back. It was the upbringing that I wanted and was good at the time.
"I remember the Cowboys being the team I supported when I was a young kid as well and it was nice to be able to repay the favour and get out to the smaller communities."
Starting the day with a motorcade through the main street of Mackay, the Cowboys were then mobbed at Buchanan Park in Mount Isa where they were presented with a key to the city before departing for Barlow Park in Cairns where thousands more turned out to greet them and they again received the key to the city.
For such a passionate rugby league region celebrating their first home-grown premiership such a turnout would in many ways be expected but O'Neill and the rest of his teammates were deeply moved by the welcome they received.
"The one thing that really hit home with me was how many fans were saying thank you for us making the effort to come out to the small towns whereas I was thinking, Thank you for turning out today," O'Neill said.
"The support everywhere we went, from Mount Isa to Mackay to Cairns was unreal and I hadn't ever seen anything like that before.
"North Queensland is such a rugby league-driven region that they really love their local team and get behind them so much that they just couldn't wait to get out to those trophy days.
"The trophy means as much to us as it does to them."