The lineup out the front of Townsville Sports Reserve before the Parramatta Eels' Panasonic Cup quarter-final clash with the Brisbane Broncos in 1989.

This article appeared in the first edition of the 'Cowboys Round Up' magazine in 1995. 

In early 1989, after it was announced that the Brisbane Broncos would play the Parramatta Eels in the Panasonic Cup quarter-final in Townsville, rugby league fans queued for 11 hours to get tickets.

By the time the box office opened the queue stretched, four abreast, for three blocks and by 4pm that day 14,000 tickets had been sold.

The lineup out the front of Townsville Sports Reserve before the Parramatta Eels' Panasonic Cup quarter-final clash with the Brisbane Broncos in 1989.
The lineup out the front of Townsville Sports Reserve before the Parramatta Eels' Panasonic Cup quarter-final clash with the Brisbane Broncos in 1989.

That unparalleled display of support for the game had far-reaching consequences.

Although North Queensland had produced more than its share of Australian rugby league greats over the years, there had never been any talk of the region having its own Winfield Cup team.

North Queenslanders, as the capacity crowd of 16,000 that eventually packed the Sports Reserve ground for the game proved, were delighted just to see the Broncos in action.

Australian and New South Wales rugby league chairman Ken Arthurson flew to Townsville on the eve of the game and during an interview, Townsville journalist Doug Kingston asked him if the time had come for North Queensland to have its own Winfield Cup team.

Never one to pour cold water on enthusiasm for the game, Arthurson supported the idea and next morning the story was published in the Townsville Bulletin.

“We had heard that rugby league had a big following up in this area, but this has been incredible,” Arthurson said.

“I don’t know of any other game that has sold 14,000 tickets in a single day, and any doubts about the area’s ability to support a Winfield Cup team has been well and truly laid to rest.

“I’m confident that North Queensland will eventually have a team in either the NSW league or a new national competition. I don’t like putting dates on things but I expect that it will certainly happen within the next five years.

Most North Queenslanders dismissed the notion as pie-in-the-sky, but that morning Kingston went to his boss, North Queensland Newspapers executive chairman Ron McLean, and told him that unless the newspaper group grabbed the ball and ran with it, the idea would die a natural death.

McLean, a former rugby league halfback and keen sports follower, threw his support behind a push for a North Queensland Winfield Cup team and the Cowboys, as we know them today, were on their way.

North Queensland Newspapers executive chairman Ron McLean
North Queensland Newspapers executive chairman Ron McLean

To gauge regional support, a survey was conducted in every newspaper from Mackay to Port Douglas and west to Mount Isa. It was supported by 11 radio stations throughout the North and a November 1989 full-page advertisements outlining the concept were published in every newspaper throughout North Queensland.

North Queenslanders were asked to invest 41 cents (postage) in their own Winfield Cup team by completing the survey form and returning it to a central post office box provided free of charge by Australia Post.

Of the thousands of people from Weipa to Sarina who completed survey forms, 97% indicated they wanted their own Winfield Cup team and 99% said it should be based in Townsville.

To get things started, Kingston called a meeting at the Townsville Rugby League Club and a steering committee was formed comprising McLean, Kingston, Townsville Rugby League president Ray Stuart, former international Brian Fitzsimmons, Townsville barrister Bob Pack and NQ Castlemaine Perkins manager Denis Pegg.

In late November 1989 a formal committee was elected with McLean as chairman. It comprised Mount Isa league president Alex Biondi, Northern Region schools sports coordinator Barry Buchanan, Fitzsimmons, Pack, Stuart and representatives of the Cairns, Mackay, Herbert River and Burdekin/Whitsunday rugby leagues.

By chance, one of North Queensland’s favourite sporting sons, international rugby league winger Kerry Boustead announced his intention to retire at the end of the 1990 season.  

Kerry Boustead playing for Queensland in 1984.
Kerry Boustead playing for Queensland in 1984.

The Kangaroos and Queensland State of Origin star was looking for a new challenge and the committee decided he was the right man to lead the push for the North’s first Winfield Cup team.

Funds were in short supply in those days. In fact, Boustead almost never made it to Townsville for his initial interview.

“I was flying on a stand-by ticket and I kept getting off-loaded in Brisbane,” Boustead recalled.

“But I eventually got through to Townsville and, although it meant I had to sell my business in Sydney and move my family to Townsville, I jumped at the chance to be involved.”

Boustead, whose quantum leap from Innisfail club football to Test stardom in 1978 earned him a place in the game’s history books as Australia’s youngest rugby league representative, was officially appointed promotions manager of the NQ bid on July 9, 1990.

Kerry Boustead
Kerry Boustead

During the remainder of the 1990 Winfield Cup season, he somehow managed to play reserve grade for North Sydney, run his own business, and complete vital research and promotional work for the NQ bid.

Boustead, his wife Leigh, and their three children (at this stage), moved to Townsville in October in 1990 and the hard work started.

Boustead recalls that things were pretty basic in those days. “My first company car was a 1967 Holden donated by one of the committee members,” he said.

“The only sponsorship was had at that stage was some initial money from Castlemaine Perkins and the Queensland Rugby League so everything was done on a shoestring budget.

Although there were plenty of knockers, Boustead’s reputation gave the NQ bid respectability.

However, even he got offside with the public when, in December 1990, he announced that the NQ team would be called the Cowboys.

“We’ll round up the Raiders, shoot down the Seagulls, and break in the Broncos,” Boustead promised.

But the public wasn’t impressed. People wrote letters to their newspapers and phoned their local radio stations complaining that the name was too American.

Plenty of alternatives were suggested including Crocodiles, Canetoads, Mudcrabs, Cyclones, Roos, Emus, Taipans, Redbacks, Bunyips, Cassowaries, Ringers – even Scud Missiles!

But Bowie stuck to his guns and the Cowboys rode on.

In May 1991 plans were drawn up to redevelop the Townsville Sports Reserve into a Winfield Cup home ground at a cost of $5 million and in early June the Cowboys committee formed a company called Top End Rugby League.

The legendary Artie Beetson was asked if he would be interested in coaching the team and although he expressed an interest, the big fellow noted in typical down-to-earth style, that he could be dead by the time the Cowboys were accepted into the competition.

Mal Meninga and Arthur Beetson in 1989
Mal Meninga and Arthur Beetson in 1989

In August 1991 Castlemaine Perkins, who had backed the NQ big for the outset, claimed major sponsorship right with a cash injection of $50,000.

On September 17, 1991, Boustead lodged the formal application for entry to the Winfield Cup with the Queensland Rugby League for the forwarding to the NSWRL. The application was based on average home game crowds of 7000 and predicted benefits to the region totalling $8 million a year.

The application for entry, described by Boustead as “factual, realistic, down-to-earth and exciting”, was supported by unsolicited letters of support from more than 20 major companies, 11 public sector organisations, 14 politicians, and a petition signed by almost 30,000 North Queenslanders.

The petition was delivered to NSWRL headquarters in Sydney by stagecoach, with Boustead riding shotgun and Kingston sitting on the back firing the starter’s pistol to simulate gunfire.

The stagecoach traveled through the business district of Sydney, turning heads and attracting coverage on three national television news services and in four major newspapers which had, until then, dismissed the NQ bid as a pie in the sky.

After the application and petition had been delivered by Ken Arthurson, the Cowboys treated NSWRL heavyweights to a feed of NQ mud crabs and Bowen Special mangoes.

The Cowboys had done their homework well, because Arthurson and other NSWRL chiefs were partial to the NQ delicacies.

Since then quite a few muddies and many a tray of mangoes have found their way to NSWRL headquarters.

It could even be said that the Cowboys got into the Winfield Cup on the shell of a mud crab and the skin of a mango.

The Cowboys bid was bolstered in late September 1991 when 12,000 people attended a testimonial game for North Queensland-born league stars Gene Miles and Greg Dowling.

­­­But the Winfield Cup push suffered a major setback the following month when the NSWRL told the Cowboys they may have to wait until 1994 to enter the Winfield Cup.

In October, 1991, the State Government boosted flagging morale by offering the discussed Willows Paceway complex as a home ground.

Although the Sports Reserve had been the traditional home of NQ rugby league, lower development costs swayed the Cowboys to accept the Willows as their home base in late November.

With nothing tangible to offer prospective sponsors at that stage, the bid started running out of money and Boustead faced the choice of working for nothing or giving up.

Showing the same sort of fighting spirit he had displayed in 25 Test matches for Australia, Boustead decided to soldier on, choosing to sell his house in Sydney to support his family.

Corporate backing for the team was emphasised yet again in January, 1992, when 30 companies signaled their intention to buy corporate boxes at the Cowboys home ground.

In February Ken Arthurson, NSWRL general manager John Quayle, Queensland sports Minister Bob Gibbs and Castlemaine Perkins managing director Frank Burnett flew to Townsville to inspect the Willows Paceway.

Boustead was left with a lasting memento of the occasion when he had to scale a two-metre high fence to gain access to the locked ground. On his way over barbed wire at the top of the fence he ripped his trousers, prompting one onlooker to comment that if the Cowboys were to gain entry to the Winfield Cup, it would be by the seat of Bowie’s pants.

The Cowboys spread their wings in April, 1992, forging links with the Northern Territory Rugby League, but they hit another brick well in May when the NSWRL announced that Auckland had been included in an expanded 1995 Winfield Cup competition.

The NQ, Perth and Brisbane bids were asked to provide further information, from which one more side would be chosen to join the competition.

In June, 1992, the State Government offered the Cowboys use of the Willows complex for an indefinite period at a peppercorn rental.

In September, 1992, the Cowboys spread their wings even further when Kerry Boustead visited Papua New Guinea to establish a link with Australia’s nearest northern neighbor. Talks held over a cold beer during the Port Moresby Rugby League grand final set up the framework for a valuable alliance.

In October, a joint venture proposal to redevelop the Willows complex was considered by the Townsville and Thuringowa city councils.

In a joint statement, mayors Tony Mooney and Les Tyrell said they hoped, with the approval of the State Government, to be able to put together an assistance package to enable the Willows to become the Cowboys home ground, should they be accepted into the Winfield Cup.

Later that month both councils agreed to join the Cowboys in a joint venture to develop the Willows complex as an international standard football stadium capable of hosting a variety of sports.

With the NSWRL set to make a decision on which one of the three remaining bids would join the Auckland Warriors in 1995 Winfield Cup, the Cowboys were offered the opportunity to put their case directly to the league’s full board on November 30, 1992.

A deputation including chairman Ron McLean, general manager Kerry Boustead, and Townsville Mayor Tony Mooney flew to Sydney with high hopes but low expectations.

However, the NSWRL sprang one of the biggest surprises in its 85-year history by including all three remaining bids – NQ, Perth and Brisbane – in the 1995 Winfield Cup.

NSWRL chairman Ken Arthurson said the three teams had been admitted under certain conditions, which included payment of a $500,000 deposit by March 31, 1994.

Next day the Townsville Bulletin front-page headline screamed “We’re In” and Boustead arrived home to a hero’s welcome.

Arthurson left no doubt about the role the former international winger had played.

“He worked very hard for this,” Arthurson said. “He got them home, actually.”