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The year of hard knocks

Passionate Cowboys member Kate Cornish reflects, with a keen eye on 2019.

The start of the 2018 season promised so much. 

On paper we were the team to beat. Those in the know had the Cowboys favourites to win the premiership, we had a great-looking squad who were seasoned and experienced, we had a great new signing in Jordan McLean and of course, it was to be JT's swan song.

As happens so often in our sport, the rugby league gods had a different season in mind for us, and it was going to look nothing like what we had hoped. We had some big lessons to learn in 2018, and for the most part, it was going to be a tough road.

This season sorted out the fair-weather fans from the 'die hards' and we banded together fiercely in solidarity, showing the team and club that we were along for the ride with them.

The 2017 season was a different ball game. We defied all odds and made the top 8. We were written off early in the season when we lost both our captains, JT and Matty Scott. Done for. Doomed. Season over. They were the words we heard from the NRL community.

Nevertheless, the team hung in and we played a spirited, very respectable season. Michael Morgan ran that team like a well-bred kelpie, while Kyle Feldt established himself as one of the best wingers in the game. Gavin Cooper became "Captain Courageous', and Jase Taumalolo ripped it up through the middle of the park.

As luck would have it, we just scraped into the top 8, we limped in over the line – I am quite sure that the boys' post season drinks had not yet reached their lips before the call from Greeny came in. We would ride for another day.

We were there to make up the numbers, and we were supposed to lose politely in the first game. What happened instead was a finals campaign for the ages. They lined them up and we just kept knocking them out. Defying all odds, we made the Grand Final in 2017, and by this stage the boys were held together with scotch tape and prayers. There were so many injuries, and they were so brave.

We were beaten by the Storm, who had been brutal all season, but we had made it, and we had made it without JT.

Maybe it was a hangover from the tough season that had just been or maybe it was the injuries that had not quite yet healed, maybe it was the unrealistic pressure of sending out JT with a fairytale finish. Whatever it was, 2018 for the Cowboys was hard, it hurt, and we learnt a lot.

We learnt that it does not matter what odds the bookies give you at the start of the season and it does not matter what your team list looks like, you are not entitled to anything in the game of rugby league.

There are 16 teams in the competition and they all believe they can win, more importantly they want to knock off the favourites, and we had a target on our back before the first ball of the 2018 season was struck.

Many have commented that if Scotty Bolton had gone over against the Broncos in round 2 instead of hitting the padded uprights, the Cowboys win that derby and the season takes a different path. But that is the game of rugby league, it is a game of millimetres and there is certainly an element of luck involved.

Perhaps we had used up all our luck in 2017, and were in the negative, because no matter how hard we prayed, our prayers went unanswered. It seemed that the harder we tried the more elusive a win was.

We had three heartbreaking losses by 1 point, two of them back-to-back and the bottom of the ladder was edging closer by the week, but at the end of the games JT kept saying that the boys 'always turned up with the right attitude' and that he could not ask anything more of them.

All teams go through it, and it is part of the sport and while we had been so lucky to have a great period with a solid, stable team, this was the year of change.

Michael Morgan had been ruled out for the season, Jordan McLean was still out with injury and it looked like we were not going to make the top 8. There was enough drama this season to give Days of Our Lives a run for their money.

Even though some will say 2018 was a disappointing campaign for the Cowboys, we had some great moments as a club and many achievements to be proud of this season.

JT played every minute of every game and at the end of the regular season was the league leader in both try and line break assists (are we sure we cannot wring one more season out of him?), Kyle Feldt scored 14 tries and kicked a 56m penalty goal, and with his 4-pointer in the last game of the season, Gavin Cooper became the first forward in history to score 9 tries in 9 matches.

Incredibly, Matty Scott notched up game 250 and Jakey Granville hit 100.

We also met enviable new talent in the form of Enari Tula, Gideon Gela-Mosby and our Rookie of the Year, Jake Clifford.

At the annual RLPA Players' Champion awards, we were represented by JT, Jase and Morgo.

JT was voted Halfback in the Players' 13 Dream Team, won the award for Indigenous Leadership and Excellence and he was recognised for his efforts in reaching 300 games.

Jase Taumalolo was awarded Representative Player of the Year, while Michael Morgan was recognised in the NRL Academic Team of the Year.

Not bad for a team who were in danger of being wooden spoon contenders.

At the end of the season the Cowboys managed to gift JT one last win over the Broncos in an absolute thriller (is there any other way?).

Townsville put on an absolute spectacle for their hero's last home game, and that night the Cowboys blew the Eels off the park with an incredible show for the fans.

The very last game of our 2018 season was against the Gold Coast Titans and it was the last time JT would run out as a Cowboy.

That night attendance records were broken; footy records fell and if you'd heard the crowd that night you would have believed we had just won the Grand Final. Cbus Stadium was awash with Cowboys colours as far as the eye could see. Faithful fans turned out in record numbers to farewell their favourite Cowboy, and it felt like a good ending for our champion.

Now that the 2018 season is over, we farewell some wonderful members of our team, all who are now etched in Cowboys history forever.

We acknowledge, salute and congratulate Josh Chudleigh, Sam Hoare, Shaun Hudson, and Kyle Laybutt for their contributions and thank them for their service to the club.

We also pay tribute and farewell Shaun Fensom, with his mighty heart, Kane Linnett with his determination and reliability and our little fullback who was so instrumental in our 2015 success, Lachlan Coote.

These three tremendous players have weaved their way into Cowboy folklore and into the hearts of the fans. We will always be grateful for the time they were Cowboys and recognise our club is richer for having had them wear our jersey.

Our retirees this year include of course JT and Antonio Winterstein. While we were prepared for JT to hang up his boots at the end of the season, we were not geared for the news of Antonio.

Forced to retire during the season due to injury, we lost one of our all-time favourites sooner than we would have liked and he will be sorely missed. A Cowboy since 2011, he played 167 games in our jersey and scored 78 tries. Part of our victorious 2015 Grand Final team, he scored 16 tries that year on the way to the big dance.

We now look forward to 2019 with great anticipation. We will have a string of new faces lining up in Cowboys colours and we happily welcome back some of our tried and tested product.

We begin an era without JT and it is time to forge a new path, while honouring the efforts of all Cowboys who have walked it before.

It is time to get excited about the Cowboys of 2019.

'It's not about the hits you take, it's about how you get back up.' Muhammad Ali

Acknowledgement of Country

North Queensland Cowboys respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.