Don't leave the field wondering
By Tony Webeck, Chief Queensland Correspondent, NRL.com
Written off in June when the loss of the best front-rower in the game was compounded by the loss of the best player in the game, no one doubted that the North Queensland Toyota Cowboys would continue to compete but history suggested wins would dry up as rapidly as the inland river systems so critical in sustaining life in the state's remote regions.
The outpouring of support after the team's 15-14 extra-time win over a Sharks team that had regularly been their nemesis paled in comparison to that which greeted the 2015 grand final winners yet in some respects seemed to mean just as much.
In many ways this Cowboys team is a throwback to pre-JT when a rag tag bunch of locals and imports made a habit of exceeding expectations.
Like last weekend, North Queensland are given little chance to move past the Eels and into a preliminary final on Saturday night but the players themselves say they will be energised by their incredible support back in the state's north.
"The crowd that was at the airport when we got back was amazing but I guess that just shows how much North Queenslanders love their footy," said bench forward Coen Hess.
"It was almost like we'd won the grand final.
"'Greeny' [Cowboys coach Paul Green] just encouraged us to enjoy the moment and soak it all up but he also told us that we've got three more chances to experience that same feeling so we definitely don't want to bow out now."
Prop forward Scott Bolton was a member of the 2015 team that were welcomed back in possession of the Provan-Summons trophy with a euphoria that carried throughout the entire north of the state and says the battered and bruised 2017 model of the Cowboys will continue to draw on the emotion of their supporters.
"It just carries you momentum-wise. It's almost like running back out here at your home ground," Bolton told NRL.com.
"Just knowing that it means so much to the community so you always use that momentum when you're doing it a bit tough out on the field.
"When we're leaving to go it does pick you up and help you prepare for the game on the weekend.
"It's always great to see our home fans and supporters club back there in Townsville. Win, lose or draw you can count on them being there come finals time and it's very pleasing to see them there again and sure gets us going again for this week."
Five losses in the final six weeks of the season to teams that finished inside the top eight has had the Cowboys walking a finals tightrope for the past two months, their finals berth only secured when the Bulldogs defeated the Dragons in Round 26.
While admitting being under such pressure can take a toll, powerhouse lock forward Jason Taumalolo believes it has also steeled the team to meet whatever challenges are thrown at them.
"Yeah I think it works both ways," Taumalolo said. "Obviously physically it's probably not the best, some boys tend to be a lot worse than other weeks but mentally I definitely think it's good for the boys.
"They know what it's like to play finals footy in the last month or so and to come into last week's game the boys definitely knew what was required if it was to come down to the wire.
"The boys worked a lot harder and the intensity of finals footy was there too so it's obviously good that we played those games in the last month or so."
Compounding the injury toll at the end of a long season is a return trip to Sydney on a six-day turnaround that necessitated an adjoining flight from Brisbane on Thursday but last week's match-winner insists the occasion will provide all the energy they need to go again.
"It's an exciting time of the year," said halfback Michael Morgan.
"Whoever's picked to play is excited to play because it's semi-final footy and you work so hard to actually get here so to be here now there is that excitement… there's just a bit of a buzz and excitement around the group."