There’s something special about the Cowboys. Because they’re so tightly nurtured by Thurston – the longest-standing captain in the game at the moment, with Cameron Smith a close second – they tend to have a synergy that you don’t get in more high-profile outfits. While other captains might be good at rallying their troops in high-pressure situations or putting a hard face on disappointing seasons, Thurston is unique in the way in which he manages to shape an ongoing, day-to-day relationship with his stable, cultivating them as much as he captains them and explaining why so many Cowboys players stick around for so long. While captains like Mitchell Pearce seem to stand head and shoulders above their teams, North Queensland feels as if it has a whole host of unofficial co-captains, wingmen who work in tandem with Thurston rather than beneath him, to exude that special sense of community that defines Cowboys football at its best.
As the prop to Thurston’s halfback, James Tamou is one of the players who has most come into his own under his captain’s leadership. In part, that’s because there’s a certain synergy between the two players in terms of their club affiliations. While Thurston may have started out with the Dogs, he’s very much a one-team player at heart, and in fact only moved to North Queensland because he was unable to gain a lifetime spot at Canterbury-Bankstown in the first place. Similarly, even if Tamou had ended up moving to the Raiders, he would have always felt like a Cowboys export, just because he’s represented North Queensland ever since his debut in 2009, coming of age just as Thurston was really starting to consolidate his leadership. Few players have been with the Cows for as long as Tamou, and that makes him feel emblematic of Cowboys football as much as his captain, although in a different kind of way.
Clearly, one big difference is that Tamou hails from New Zealand, whereas Thurston is a born and bred Queenslander. At the same time, Tamou’s first club was the Paddington Tigers, giving him the option to play for the Blues at Origin level and the Kangaroos at a national level – an option he’s taken up. While the media has often framed it as him choosing Australia over New Zealand, I’ve always read it as being an extension of his affiliation with the Cowboys: as a North Queenslander, it makes sense that he should at least be in Origin, even if he’s not playing for the Maroons. In fact, there’s something about the spirit of the Cowboys that reflects the spirit of the Blues, with both bringing a journeyman kind of quality to the game. Although it’s known as a hotbed of Maroons fandom, 1300SMILES Stadium often feels like the NRL’s gateway to the Pacific as well, bringing in more New Zealander players than any other team in the game, and more Islander players than even New Zealand. At times, North Queensland almost feel like a Pacific team, just as Townsville tends to feel like an independent Pacific state whenever the Cowboys are victorious on their home turf.
Perhaps that’s what also makes Tamou such a key Origin player, since the Blues have felt more and more like a journeyman outfit over the last decade as well. For ten years, it feels as if the Maroons have done nothing but solidify, mercilessly peeling back excess baggage and employing the strictest quality control in order to end up with the brutal, clinical product that we know so well today. New South Wales, by contrast, have had to experiment, trying one player combination after another in search of that elusive formula that will finally put an end to one of Origin’s greatest dynasties. Being a Blues supporter has also had something of the same quality, as we find ourselves drifting from Origin year to Origin year without the same sense of focus or purpose that seems to characterise the Maroons fanbase. And while there are players who have captured the agony and ecstasy of Origin football more dramatically than Tamou, there’s perhaps no single player who’s captured the coal face of the Blues so perfectly over the last decade or so, even if he’s only been playing for half of it.
A lot of it has to do with being a prop, since props seem to be one of the most valuable and yet one of the most contested positions in Origin football. Just because it intensifies so much about regular club footy, Origin often acts as a taste of what’s to come for the NRL. You might say that Origin evolves or experiments at a faster race than the rest of the game, giving you a glimpse of some of the big talking-points that are likely to emerge over the next couple of years. In that light, one of the most striking features of recent Origin clashes is the movement away from traditional forward packs. While you would once find two full-blown props on the field and two on the bench, now you’re only likely to find two players at most who are squarely identified with prop, and even then they’re likely to be able to play a couple of other positions as well. Like any other workplace, Rugby League has become more deregulated, flexible and provisional, and while the increase in player trades is one aspect of that situation, it also manifests itself in the increasing fluidity of the field itself, especially the gradual erosion of forward and back packs that seems to accelerate whenever Origin comes around.
In some ways, the Maroons have succeeded because they’ve been able to tap into those flexible tendencies, although they’re also lucky in having powerhouses like DCE, a natural halfback who can take on prop duties at a pinch and pretty much function anywhere along the spine of the team. The Blues, however, have stuck with a fairly classic prop pair in Aaron Woods and James Tamou – big men who aren’t afraid to build their whole Rugby League career around their ability to dive into a tackle, take a big hit, and offload in the most efficient way possible. In an era of massive position mobility, they’re classic footy craftsmen, still dedicated to refining and perfecting one role, which is what also makes them two of the most memorable personality props in the game. Tamou, in particular, is impossible to imagine in any other position: unlike most other Origin players, and unlike Woods himself, he’s never really played anything else, which is not hard to believe after seeing him on the field, but is still unusual in this day and age. At the same time, Tamou isn’t a straightforward prop in the old mould either, since he’s more agile than your average battering-ram, racking up metres with his wits as much as his charges, and more than capable of keeping it up for eighty minutes without tiring.
Still, Tamou feels like a transitional figure. Given that props are transitional figures anyway, spending their whole game in the few contested metres that make or break a match, that gives his style of play a particular desperation and intensity that can be absolute dynamite to watch. At the same time, he doesn’t indulge in aggro grandstanding, which perhaps has something to do with the spirit of the Cows as well. Sure, he’s had more than his fair share of biffs, but that’s part of the job description of prop – to take one for the team when the time is right – and doesn’t necessarily mean succumbing to the self-styled hard man personalities that so many other players seem to think gives them more cred on the field. Whether it’s his larger-than-life smile, or his slightly sheepish manner on camera, there’s a comic resilience in the way Tamou manages to cop hits. Light years away from the self-seriousness of, say, JWH, there’s something about him that seems to defy grudges, even when he’s smashed in the face with a Steeden by Billy Slater.
Of course, it was largely Thurston who guided Tamou to his role as Blues enforcer, and between them they capture something of the community spirit that remains Origin’s most enduring experience. Last year’s buildup to Origin 2 was a case in point. On the back of a cracking NSW performance in Game 1, Tamou made an off-the-hand comment that Hayne had probably surpassed Thurston in terms of his Origin ability. To anyone with half a brain, it was the very opposite of a sledge. Not only was Tamou still high on one of the most decisive NSW victories in the last decade, but there was also something about the way Hayne performed in that game that gave us the first real glimpse that he had what it took to make it on the world stage. Add to that the fact that Origin always seems to bring out extreme speculation from both camps – intensification is the name of the game – and there wasn’t really anything offensive about Tamou’s comment, at least from my perspective. Predictably, though, an Origin-crazed media machine made the most of it, leading Tamou to send Thurston an SMS apologising for any offence caused. Of course, there was any offence caused, and no need to really send the text in the first place, but the fact that Tamou still went ahead and did it spoke multitudes about his allegiance to Thurston, his allegiance to the Cowboys and his general sense of etiquette as a player. Origin can sometimes bring out the most aggressive side of a player, but it can sometimes bring out the most courteous as well, and at the end of the day the brilliance of Tamou as a prop is that he manages to be both.