Watching two outlier teams play is always a bit of an interesting experience. With two Sydney franchises on the field, there’s always a sense that they’re competing for the best game in the city on that particular night. On top of that, every Sydney team has at least one traditional rivalry with another local team, while the escalating movement of players in a city with as many teams as Sydney means that grudge matches tend to crop up fairly frequently. But when it’s two teams from out of town – far out of town – the stakes feel a bit different, especially when there’s been as little movement between the teams as between North Queensland and New Zealand (to my knowledge, nobody has played for both). To someone who’s as Sydney-centric in their NRL fandom as me, there’s also something a bit exotic in seeing North Queensland and New Zealand take the field, since they’re the two teams that feel farthest from the League heartland. In some ways, it’s the closest we get to an international competition within the NRL – after all, Townsville is even further away than Auckland – which is perhaps why even the Cowboys often feel like a bit of a nation unto themselves.
With two outlier teams, the venue also makes a big difference. Of course, that’s not to say that venue doesn’t play a role in Sydney as well – turning up at Redfern Oval is going to be a more punishing experience for the Roosters than turning up at Dairy Farmers Stadium, in terms of crowd support. If anything, friends of mine from out of town tell me that Sydney teams are often welcomed when they play in places like Canberra, Gold Coast and Townsville. Of course, local fans cheer local teams, but there’s a sense of excitement in seeing teams with the cosmpolitan cache of the Roosters or the Bunnies playing on your own back doorstep. Similarly, there’s a kind of courtesy that seems to be extended to teams who come down to Sydney from out of town – in the commentary, in the camaraderie, and in the hand-shaking that takes place after the match. With two teams from out of town, however, the situation gets a bit trickier. Without the presence of a whole lot of other footy teams and a wider footy culture, home grounds become everything. Sometimes, as in the case of the Storm, they become fortresses. Sometimes, as in the case of the Raiders, they’re buttressed with other franchises, like the Brumbies. When it comes to the Cowboys, however, it’s a bit different, since Dairy Farmers Stadium – I still can’t call it 1300Smiles Stadium – is probably the most laidback, grassroots, chilled-out venue in the game. Even massive clashes that take place there have a reserve-grade kind of feel, while the cosy vibe tends to make it feel like a training ground more than a playing ground. It’s the kind of venue where no players can really hold grudges against each other, even after the biggest hits – the moment the whistle blows, everyone’s off-field, which is not always something you feel in the bigger, urban stadiums.
Yet in its own way, Dairy Farmers Stadium is a fortress, since that very relaxed mentality – that pleasure in playing where you train – is what gives the Cowboys their elastic, supple strength as a team, unmatched in its flexibility and eccentricity by almost any other in the game, with the possible exception of the Titans (of which more later). It’s not a surprise, then, that, up until this year, the Cowboys had the worst record of away wins in the game, making it to the 2014 finals despite only winning a quarter of their matches on the road. Given the remoteness of Townsville, and the relative inconvenience of shipping a Sydney franchise up there, that’s a considerable problem for a team that’s got as much potential and panache as North Queensland. Not only do they play a lot of away games, but when they’re away, they’re really away, travelling further than any other team in the game on average to make it to matches. Yet that all seems to be changing this year, at least according to an recent article on Fox Sports outlining some of the key steps the Cows have taken to improve their away record. Chief among them is a combination of hydrotherapy, pool work and ice baths, as well as – crucially – getting straight into training the moment they land, strategies that they adopted from the Richmond Tigers and the AIS. As someone who’s flown a bit, that’s a pretty counter-intuitive idea – who feels like training the moment they land? – but it seems to have worked pretty well this year for the Cowboys, who’ve managed to coast their way to the top four while tripling their away victory rates.
All that made Saturday’s match against the Warriors pretty special, since it was one of the first game that North Queensland has played outside the country since implementing this new away routine. Playing footy after a domestic flight is hard enough, but playing it after an international flight is another thing entirely. Add to that the pressure of being in a foreign stadium – and Warriors fans are nothing if not passionate – and the stage was set for a unique test of the Cows’ newfound resilience on the road. It was a bit strange, then, to see that they were still plagued by the slow starts that have followed them throughout the season, with the Warriors actually plunging ahead to a 16-0 lead in the first twenty minutes alone – a lead that would have cemented victory if they’d managed to play a little bit stronger, or to keep a slightly more diligent watch over the left corridor that the Cowboys have started to claim as their own over the last couple of games. Obviously, it’s a favourite haunt of Thurston’s, but Kyle Feldt and Justin O’Neill are also starting to work it as well, and the magic caught on in this game, with five tries funnelled down past New Zealand’s defensive line. Keeping close to the ball – an amazing 70% possession – the Cowboys seem to have learned the lesson of playing defensively when on the road, so attuned to Mt Smart that you could be forgiven for thinking it was their home ground.
Still, it’s not a victory the Cowboys should take lying down either. Losing James Tamou was a big blow – though at least it didn’t happen before Origin – while there’s something a bit worrying about that opening lag that seems to have become a bit of a Cowboys trademark. Surely, the point of getting the players exercising as soon as they get off the plane is so they can hit the field fully loaded, but even despite the better away rates this Cowboys outfit felt jet lagged on Saturday night, only really waking up when the Warriors gave them enough of a shock to really get going. It begs the question, really, of what would have happened if that early Warriors surge hadn’t been quite so strong – would the Cows simply have ambled on until it was too late? In a season when both North Queensland and New Zealand have been hovering around critical thresholds – the Cowboys at the edge of the top three, the Warriors at the edge of the top eight – the showdown at Mt Smart Stadium on Saturday night was one of those matches that feels as if it will have repercussions for the pre-finals leadup, even if they’re not immediately apparent at first glance. What is clear is that it was every bit as exciting as you’d expect from a Cowboys-Warrior clash, cementing my feeling that they’re two of the best footy teams out there, even if they sometimes fly under the radar a bit.