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Year 21 - 2015

It was the field goal seen around the world and was the crowning exclamation mark on the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys’ greatest ever moment in their proud two-decade history.

Where were you when the Cowboys won the 2015 National Rugby League Telstra Premiership?

If you were lucky enough to be one the 82,758 people at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium on Sunday 4 October 2015, you were a first-hand witness to what many are calling the greatest NRL premiership decider in the competition’s history.

North Queensland won their maiden premiership with a 17-16 victory over the six-time champions Brisbane Broncos, helmed by returning messiah Wayne Bennett.

Bennett, back at Red Hill after stints as head coach of the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Newcastle Knights, was shooting from an unprecedented seven premierships from seven grand final appearances as a head coach.

He came within a whisker of achieving the remarkable feat as history will record the several pivotal moments that turned what for all money appeared to be a Brisbane victory into a sudden-death golden-point contest, and then into a Cowboys overtime triumph for the ages.

After 79 minutes and 45 seconds of enthralling rugby league between two sides at the top of their games, the Broncos led 16-12 and had one eye on the Provan-Summons Trophy.

In fact, retiring skipper Justin Hodges, while still on the field, was being prepared to be honoured an outgoing winner with sideline moves made before the final siren to bring his family straight on to the field for the obligatory post-match reunion.

In possession and about 25m out from the Broncos’ tryline, the Cowboys had one last throw of the dice as they were staring down the unenviable record of being 0-2 in NRL grand finals following their 30-16 loss to the Wests Tigers a decade earlier.

Moments earlier, the Broncos were in possession midfield until a quick-thinking Kyle Feldt stole the ball off Ben Hunt following a searching Anthony Milford run.

Having marched the ball back into good territory, the Cowboys turned to four-time Dally M medal winner and club talisman Johnathan Thurston to pull something out of the fire with less than 20 seconds on the clock.

Thurston received the ball on the left side of the field but was forced to backtrack as a rushing Adam Blair and then Andrew McCullough tried to shut down the playmaker. Thurston avoided both tackles then wheeled to his left as fullback Lachlan Coote loomed in support.

JT held on to the ball and ghosted across to the right where he found a flat-footed Michael Morgan with 10m of open ground in front of him before the defensive line would meet him.

Morgan – who had scored several angle-running tries in 2015 using pure pace and strength – kept running until somehow finding himself in between three defenders before flicking a perfect pass to an unmarked Kyle Feldt for the Cowboys to level the score at 16-all as the fulltime siren sounded.

The drama-charged grand final still had two more twists before North Queensland could call themselves champions.

Thurston’s potential premiership-winning conversion attempt from the sideline hit the uprights and the match was headed for golden point extra time.

If fate was smiling on the Cowboys, it manifested itself in the form of the extra-time kickoff as Broncos halfback Ben Hunt spilled Feldt’s towering effort.

In perfect field position, Thurston calmly potted the memorable field goal as the boys from North Queensland created history to be crowned the club’s first ever premiers: in their 20th year; in their 20th finals match; a decade after grand final heartbreak.

North Queensland was in a frenzy - delirious that their team had created their own slice of history – and the scenes at Townsville Airport and later at 1300SMILES Stadium will be forever etched in the region’s sporting folklore.

The team celebrated for a fortnight before 11 of the grand final-winning team said thank you to their regional supporters with a three-city, one-day tour incorporating Mackay, Mount Isa and Cairns.

Thousands flocked to each venue as the players held the Provan-Summons Trophy aloft at Bluewater Quay (Mackay), Buchanan Park (Mount Isa) and Barlow Park (Cairns).

The regional tour preceded a much more comprehensive Trophy Tour with club officials taking the trophy to North Queensland towns, including in northwestern Queensland, the Central highlands and the Gulf/Cape York region, while a three-day trip to Port Moresby, Papua New Guinea proved a major hit with Cowboys fans in the rugby league-mad nation.

The trophy tour is ongoing, and in between, the prized silverware will be making numerous community and corporate appearances in Townsville.

But the thought of any premiership fanfare in October and November was but a pipe dream earlier in the year with the Cowboys getting their 2015 NRL campaign off to a disastrous start in dropping their opening three games of the season.

After a productive pre-season and some savvy recruitment under second-year NRL coach Paul Green, there was plenty of cause for optimism as the NQ boys opened their season away to Sydney-based glamour club the Sydney Roosters.

Green - who took the Cowboys to the second week of the finals in his first year at the helm – initially stuck with largely the same team which finished 2014 strongly.

Incumbent five-eight Robert Lui retained his spot, with Michael Morgan at fullback following a breakout 2014 in that position where he played in place of long-term injured recruit Lachlan Coote.

Coote, who suffered a serious knee injury in the 2014 Auckland Nines and missed his entire first season as a Cowboys, had at this point recovered and would spend the first two weeks of the 2015 season playing for the Northern Pride in the Intrust Super Cup.

But a humbling 28-4 opening round loss to the Roosters – upon which the Sunday Mail newspaper ran with the back page headline “YOU STINK” – and a tough 16-14 home defeat to the Knights in Round 2 prompted Green to make some personnel changes.

Morgan was slotted in at five-eight while Coote made his long-awaited return in the custodian’s role following a successful albeit injury ravaged six-year stint at Penrith.

Success wasn’t immediate as the Broncos routed the Cowboys 44-22 at Suncorp Stadium to complete the losing trifecta to start a new campaign which began with such optimism.

But a return to 1300SMILES Stadium and a date with perennial heavyweights the Melbourne Storm was to be the catalyst for a season-defining 11-game winning streak that would propel the Cowboys into the top four and have them perfectly poised for a legitimate premiership push.

But that win over the Storm didn’t come easy, the 18-17 final result featuring a 78th-minute try to winger Matthew Wright and an 80th-minute field goal to Thurston to push the match into extra time.

Thurston then piloted over a second field goal to steal an against-the-odds win and start the Cowboys on their long march up the ladder.

The Cowboys’ previous best run of consecutive wins was seven, achieved twice, and the 2015 win streak including a handful of comfortable victories.

More notable, though, was the consistency the team showed in winning tight contests, often coming from well behind with furious second-half rallies behind let by the irrepressible Thurston, who was in career-best form…no mean feat when you already have three Dally Ms to your name.

Highlights of the 11-game tear included:

  • Round 11 v Wests Tigers at Campbelltown Stadium: minus their State of Origin Quartet in Thurston, Morgan, Matt Scott and James Tamou, a dogged Cowboys team ground out a memorable 8-0 win with Antonio Winterstein’s 77th-minute four-pointer the only try of the match. The Cowboys completed at 90% and made 36 more tackles than the Tigers for one of their most important wins of the year. A similarly dogged 18-12 round 17 win over the Dragons at WIN Stadium, Wollongong ensure the Cowboys won both of their matches affected by Origin.

  • Round 13 v the Eels at Pirtek Stadium: with the Cowboys down 30-6 after 45 minutes. An incredible 11-minute, five-try burst – including a Gavin Cooper hat-trick in seven minutes – gave the Cowboys an unlikely 36-30 win and showcasing the team’s ability to pile on tries in bunches, a handy knack that would became somewhat of a trademark in 2015.

  • Round 15 v Canberra Raiders (GIO Stadium): A Johnathan Thurston field goal at the death broke hearts in the nation’s capital as the Cowboys made it 11 straight wins with a heart-stopping 21-20 win.

The final 10 regular season-matches featured six wins (Dragons, Sea Eagles, Eels, Raiders, Warriors, Titans) and four losses (twice to Sharks, Rabbitohs, Storm) as the Cowboys finished the regular season in third place on the ladder with a 17-win, seven loss record from their 24 matches.

Across 12 home matches at 1300SMILES Stadium, the Cowboys attracted an average of 16,230 people per match, the fourth best crowd figure in the NRL.

Long-term injuries – or more precisely a lack of them – were undoubtedly a factor in the team’s success, with only centre Tautau Moga (knee) and prop Scott Bolton (severely cut finger) the only truly long-term casualties during the regular season.

The club’s High Performance Unit staff continued to implement their highly effective injury prevention and management programs during the season.

Following the grind of 26 rounds of home-and-away regular-season rugby league, a week one finals match-up with the Broncos beckoned, with 50,000 fans packing into Suncorp for a classic, won 16-12 by the home side after Bennett’s men tackled themselves to a standstill.

Resolving to bounce back from that week one disappointment, the Cowboys saved some of the best footy of the year for the next two finals matches, piling on 71 points and conceding just 12 in massive home and away wins over the Cronulla Sharks (39-0) – where almost 22,000 people packed into 1300SMILES Stadium - and the Melbourne Storm (32-12) to book a mouth-watering all-Queensland NRL grand final.

Leading into that watershed match, the Cowboys held their own event in Townsville in conjunction with the Sydney-based Dally M Awards function in Sydney.

With the Sydney event crossing live to Townsville, Thurston won his fourth Dally M Medal – awarded to the game’s best player each year - with the champion halfback also winning the halfback of the year, the Provan-Summons Medal for the fans’ choice best player, and the captain of the year alongside teammate Matt Scott.

Rampaging No. 13 Jason Taumalolo was named the NRL’s lock of the year to complete a successful night for Cowboys players.

At a club level, Thurston won his fourth Paul Bowman Medal for the club’s best player, as well as taking out the Townsville Bulletin Fans’ Choice award. Boom hooker Jake Granville won the peer-voted Players’ Player of the Year, while centre Justin O’Neill won Most Improved honours.

Retiring veteran Glenn Hall – a key member of the Cowboys’ leadership group – was named 2015 Clubperson of the Year, with the backrower honoured at the club’s presentation evening. Hall will continue to live and work in Townsville.

Several other players left the club at the end 2015 season: Robert Lui (UK Super League), Cameron King (Parramatta), Kelepi Tanginoa (Parramatta), Zac Santo and Hezron Murgha.

Several players achieved very significant individual milestones during the year:

  • Co-captain Matt Scott brought up his 200th game for the club (and the NRL) in the team’s 32-24 Round 21 win over the Raiders at 1300SMILES Stadium
  • Antonio Winterstein and Kane Linnett reached the 100-game mark for North Queensland, while Scott Bolton played his 150th game for the club (and in the NRL).
  • There were NRL debuts for Patrick Kaufusi and Coen Hess, as well as club debuts for Lachlan Coote, Ben Hannant, Jake Granville, Justin O’Neill and Kelepi Tanginoa.
  • The club’s State of Origin quartet of Thurston, Scott, Morgan (all Queensland) and Tamou (New South Wales) headlined the Cowboys’ representative honours in 2015, as the Maroons regained the coveted shield.
  • Thurston, Scott and Tamou were all members of the Australian team to play the Kiwis in the May trans-Tasman Test.
  • Tautau Moga (Samoa), Ray Thompson (Papua New Guinea) and Viliame Kikau (Fiji) all played for their respective nations in the May Pacific Test matches when Samoa and Tonga clashed, as did PNG and Fiji.

On the signing front, the Cowboys have focused heavily on retention looking ahead to 2016.

All 17 players who played in the grand final – along with 18 man Ray Thompson – are contracted until at least the end of next season, with several players extending their contracts during the 2015 season, including Thompson, Bolton, Ben Spina, Ben Hannant, Michael Morgan, Josh Chudleigh, while under-20s players Kyle Laybutt, Gideon Mosby and Braden Uele come into the senior playing group.

The only exterior signings to date are Gold Coast under-20s players Shaun Hudson and 2015 Townsville Blackhawks fullback Jahrome Hughes.

Under the steady hand of head coach Todd Payten, the Cowboys National Youth Competition team enjoyed a stellar team, finishing second at the end of the regular season with 19 wins, four losses and a draw from 24 matches, compiled a 12-game winning streak and a played massive hand in the club winning its first ever club championship.

The team was bundled out of the competition by the Manly Sea Eagles in the grand final qualifier, the 25-24 upset denying NQ a chance of winning premierships in both competitions.

But despite the initial disappointment, Payten and his staff will look back fondly on a season which had far more highs than lows: the team lead the comp for good parts of the years: speedy winger Gideon Mosby smashed the all-time NYC tryscoring record with an incredible 39 four-pointers; boom talents Coen Hess and Kaylyn Ponga were unearthed, with both young men on long-term deals at the club; and brave captain Andrew Niemoeller was named NYC Player of the Year despite missing several games with a broken arm.

In the Intrust Super Cup, the Cowboys’ three feeder teams had a mixed year.

The Mackay Cutters, premiers in 2013, finished out of finals contention with 10-win, 12-loss, one-draw record; the Northern Pride (14 wins, nine losses in the regular season) were bundled out of the finals in week one by eventual premiers Ipswich; while competition newcomers the Townsville Blackhawks (19 wins, three losses, one draw) were upset 32-20 by the Jets in the grand final, with the Ipswich team going on to win the national final against NSW Cup champions Newcastle.

Season statistics:

  • Captain(s): Johnathan Thurston, Matthew Scott, Gavin Cooper
  • Coach: Paul Green
  • Regular season: Won 17, lost seven
  • Final ladder position: Third
  • Finals: Won three, lost one
  • 2015 NRL Premiers
  • Total season points for: 684; points against: 498
  • Top point scorer: Johnathan Thurston (208)