Cowboys centre Justin O'Neill scored a try in his side's semi-final win.

Call that saved O'Neill from Sharks nightmare

When Cowboys coach Paul Green rang Justin O'Neill towards the end of the 2014 season to offer a career lifeline in North Queensland, the Melbourne Storm flyer was spending his weekends wearing a Cronulla Sharks jersey wondering where it had all gone wrong.

A try-scorer in Melbourne's grand final win in 2012 and placed on Origin standby when Darius Boyd was in doubt before Game One in 2013, an ankle injury of his own early in the 2014 season put O'Neill on the back foot and ate away at his confidence.

He didn't play an NRL game past Round 8 that year, instead spending the second half of the season flying to Sydney each weekend to play with Melbourne's then feeder team, the Sharks, in the VB NSW Cup.

It wasn't where he expected to be which is why ahead of his 50th game for the Cowboys – ironically against Cronulla in Friday night's preliminary final – O'Neill is still thankful that Green picked up the phone and called.

"It wasn't very nice playing NSW Cup each week so it was a rough couple of years before I left Melbourne but it's been awesome since I've moved to the Cows," said O'Neill, who had no knowledge of his milestone this weekend before being told by NRL.com.

"To be playing NSW Cup and not playing regular first grade was definitely a dint in my confidence and I knew it wasn't the form or footy I wanted to be playing. It wasn't the level that I wanted to be playing and I knew it wasn't me and that was better than that.

"[Green] gave me a call to let me know that the club was interested and that he was interested to get me back up to North Queensland.

"It always helps when the coach is pretty keen to get you to the team and has a role for you there in the squad. There was a plan for me to eventually play in the centres there on the right side but I came to the club with an open mind and not expecting to just walk into the team because they were on the up and had some great players in the team.

"I couldn't have asked for a better start at a new club and I looked to move up here to get that fresh start."

 

When Green made the fateful phone call O'Neill was still determined to fight his way back into the Melbourne Storm starting side but the former Townsville Brothers junior recognised that a new club was just what he needed.

Only his beginning as a Cowboy didn't go according to plan.

Playing on the wing in Round 1 against the Roosters last season O'Neill was tormented by high balls that again threatened to undermine his confidence.

But rather than copping a roasting from his new coach, O'Neill said Green's encouragement allowed him to move past those doubts and go on to win a premiership, a World Club Challenge and play Origin for Queensland in the space of 15 months.

"The first few games were a bit rough but after that I haven't really looked back," said O'Neill, whose wife Chantelle is expecting to have the couple's first child in the next fortnight.

"The style of coaching has suited my game a lot more and helped me to grow from where I started at when I first moved to the club.

"A lot of times coaches see what you're doing wrong and you cop a spray for it whereas he sat me down and said, 'I know you can catch a ball, there's no reason why you're dropping balls. It's just something that you've got to overcome in your head.'

"A coach showing belief in a player and putting things into perspective and showing me that there were a lot of other things on the field that I was doing well put the negative things behind me.

"I was able to focus on games more and not be distracted by things that were probably playing over in my head whenever a high ball would go up, that doubt that I'd drop it.

"That helped me to build confidence and get me to the form that I'm in now."