Almanac Rugby League – Restarting the tackle count of hope

The life of a North Queensland Cowboys fan is not an easy one. Having just completed our 17th home and away season across the ARL/ Super League/ NRL competitions and reaching the finals series for only the fourth time is an underwhelming return. If the Cowboys were an investment stock, there wouldn’t have been too many buyers over the duration.
Thankfully, following a footy team isn’t as cold, calculated and logical and buying and selling investments. It’s an emotional process of the heart, one where you forgive missteps along the way in the hope your club will one day reach the promised land of premiership glory. It’s a process where you ignore issues of improbability and plow ahead regardless – one where teams like the 2004 Cowboys unit can bring you immense happiness.
The 2004 Cowboys finished seventh on the ladder and headed to Sydney in week one of the finals to take on the second-placed Bulldogs. On the evening of Saturday September 11, 2004, following an afternoon at the Grenfell races, we piled into the Koorawatha Hotel to watch – two Bulldogs fans, one Cowboys fan and a contingent of ‘third parties’.
That night, the unheralded pre-Thurston Cowboys shocked the rugby league world, winning 30-22 on the back of a treble from Matt Sing and some errant handling from Bulldog winner Matt Utai. They subsequently knocked out the Broncos in week two of the finals before falling tantalisingly short against the Roosters in the preliminary final. Despite making the grand final in 2005, the 2004 Cowboys remain my favourite vintage by some margin.
The footy fan in me was delighted to draw the parallel between that 2004 match against the Bulldogs and the scenario posed on the evening of Saturday September 10, 2011, where the seventh-placed Cowboys once again headed to Sydney in week one of the finals, this time to take on second-placed Manly.
The rationalist in me was delighted to see that early bookmaker lines for the match listed Manly as a suspiciously small favourite (6.5 points).  The Cowboys’ awful record playing interstate was offset in part by injuries and suspensions which had beset Manly, pushing the game back into the balance. Our cause was aided further by a poor crowd at the Sydney Football Stadium for a final, failing to crack the 14,000 mark. In retrospect, the decision not to play the game at Brookvale Oval was a financial blow rather than triumph for the NRL. Not that I was complaining.
The early exchanges were an arm wrestle, with little in the way of tryscoring opportunities. For those who are familiar with the girls from the Oh Errol website, “Matai Minutes” (the number of minutes before Manly centre Steve Matai is first in the hands of the trainers) went off after only six minutes. Figuring that he was long overdue for an early injury, I had selected four minutes for the competition. So close yet so far….
The Cowboys took the lead at the quarter hour mark via a penalty goal and after a near miss in the 26th minute, took only one minute longer to record the first try of the night. Johnathan Thurston put a grubber kick through the defensive line on only the second tackle and Willie Tonga validated the gamble by falling on the ball. The Thurston conversion put the Cowboys up 8-0.
A pivotal moment came almost on the stroke of halftime. Aaron Payne was held up over the line on the first tackle and on the ensuing play Matt Bowen put Kalifa Faifai Loa over in the corner… off a forward pass. The Cowboys been unable to extend their lead and went into the break leading by eight. Hold that thought.
The opening eight minutes of the second half passed without incident and still leading by eight, Cowboys fans started to believe. Thereafter the matched turned into a house of horrors for the Townsville faithful.
A nice scrum play in the 49th minute saw an inside ball to Will Hopoate get Manly onto the score sheet and close the gap to two. Four minutes later, Cowboys back rower Cory Paterson was taken from the field on a stretcher with a suspected neck injury. In the 57th minute, Manly put the ball through six sets of hands and changed attacking direction mid-tackle before a Daly Cherry-Evans short ball and a quality offload from Keiran Foran saw Brett Stewart cross the stripe to make it 12-8 Manly. Six minutes later the critical blow was landed – a Cherry-Evans bomb hit the post on the full and bounced back to Anthony Watmough who dived over the line to extend Manly’s lead to ten points with only 17 minutes to go.
I’d love to suggest that the Cowboys staged an epic fightback from here to steal the match. Instead the polar opposite occurred – the white flag went up and Manly posted a further four tries in the final 11 minutes to turn a legitimate contest into a 42-8 rout.
Manly rolled on to the preliminary final in a clinical fashion, as quality sides are prone to doing. As for my Cowboys, 2011 was an improved season but ultimately we were a rung (or perhaps even two) below the alpha dogs this season.
Best of luck to everyone whose team is still in the hunt for the 2011 title. One group of you will reach the promised land. The rest of us will plow on into 2012 with renewed belief – restarting our tackle counts of hope, if you will. We do it purely and simply because as footy fans, it’s in our DNA to renew our hope every off-season. The life of a footy fan is one reliant on the belief that one year our dreams and reality will collide – maybe 2012 will be ‘the one’.
MANLY 42 (Tries: Stewart 2, Hopoate 2, Watmough, Buhrer, Ballin Goals: Lyon 7/7)
NORTH QUEENSLAND 8 (Tries: Tonga Goals: Thurston 2/2)
Venue: Sydney Football Stadium
Crowd: 13,972
Votes: 3- Daly Cherry-Evans (Man), 2- Brett Stewart (Man), 1- Kieran Foran (Man)

About Cliff Bingham

Co-author of The Punters Guide to the 2013 AFL Season & writer for the 2012 Rugby League Almanac.

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