As a rugby league fan I have certain expectations of my team. Some of you might find these expectations surprising.
I always tell people that I do not expect my team to win. Sure, I want my team to win, but part of life and professional sport is learning to win with grace and more importantly, to lose with dignity.
What I do expect is that my team are fit. The men that put on jerseys every week with the NRL logo close to their left shoulder are paid to be professional athletes. A certain level of fitness is an expectation. No exceptions.
The other thing I demand is that when these men take the field each week they put in effort and play for each other. For so many rugby league fans, a club is so much more than just a team. It is family. It is community. It is tradition. There is nothing more insulting to the institution of a club than less than maximum effort from the players on the field every single week.
If these two expectations are met, then as a fan I'm not sure I can expect much more from my players, which is why if you are a North Queensland Cowboys supporter I'm wondering whether you could possibly be left wanting any more from your squad in 2017.
Each team suffers from injuries during the season. The Parramatta Eels lost Clint Gutherson. The Brisbane Broncos lost Andrew McCullough and the South Sydney Rabbitohs lost Greg Inglis. Injury is a part of the game.
Whilst each team suffers injuries during the season, each year the rugby league footy gods look unfavourably on at least one club and smite them with so many injuries that just fielding a team each week can be challenging. In previous seasons I remember the Penrith Panthers being decimated by injuries. It has also happened to the Gold Coast Titans.
At various points throughout the season the Cowboys have been without key players like Michael Morgan, Kalyn Ponga, John Asiata, Gavin Cooper, Justin O'Neill, Patrick Kaufusi and Antonio Winterstein. That's just injury – we all know that State of Origin also takes a massive toll on the team from the north. Not only that, but the Cowboys have also been without two of their best and most experienced players in Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott for most of the 2017 season.
When one of the best players in the world is contracted to your team and unable to take the field because of injury, it can have dire consequences. And for a couple of weeks it did. The Cowboys looked lost without Johnathan Thurston and unsurprisingly so. Suddenly Coen Hess was having far less impact. Michael Morgan looked lost and so did the Cowboys attack. Suddenly most people had written off a finals berth for the North Queensland.
But then the Cowboys dug deep. I would go so far as to call Michael Morgan the most improved player of the season. Michael has worked very hard on his game and has progressed to a point where he is the leader that the Cowboys need whilst they are without JT. John Asiata showed us all his ball playing skills and the other JT has continued to demonstrate why he is worth every dollar that North Queensland will be paying him over the next 10 years.
It is astounding to me that it is now an expectation that Jason Taumololo will make over 200 metres every game. Earlier this season Jason broke Steve Price's record for the most average metres by a forward in a season. At round 26 he had made 4,469 metres in 22 games. That's immense. And the season isn't done yet.
The Cowboys may have lost five of their last six games heading into the finals, but in every single one of those games despite a massive injury toll the Cowboys were brave and pushed the opposition to the limit. As a supporter, how could you possibly ask for any more than that?
After losing to the Broncos in Round 26, the Cowboys had to wait till the second last game of the season to see whether their efforts would be enough for them to scrape into the top eight. And enough it was when the St George Illawarra Dragons lost to the Canterbury Bulldogs to gift the Cowboys eighth spot.
No one gave the Cowboys a chance in week one of the finals against the reigning premiers, the Cronulla Sharks. But just like they have done all year, the Cowboys played bravely and for each other, securing a one-point win over the Sharks in extra time.
Coach Paul Green summed it up best when he said, "We didn't deserve to win that game, but we found a way".
Whatever happens this Saturday night against Parramatta, I want to congratulate Paul Green, his staff and the leaders at the North Queensland Cowboys for their phenomenal effort this year. The Cowboys are a team that have inspired me and remain in the hunt for premiership glory, defying all the odds along the way.
Paul Green has a team built on resilience. On mateship. On the understanding that when you run out together as a team you play together till the very end and never give up. With a culture like that, I would be backing the Cowboys in to win the premiership in 2018. With a fully fit Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, Jason Taumololo and an improved Michael Morgan – they certainly are an impressive outfit.
The Eels should very much be on notice, because I have a feeling the Cowboys are not done for season 2017 just yet. They will have one more throw of the dice on Saturday night and if the Eels head into this game thinking that a win over the Cowboys is fait accompli, they could be made to be very, very sorry.
For Cowboys fans – enjoy every moment, because your team is everything that I respect about rugby league.
First published on NRL.com.