It feels strange to say it, but no team this round has been as overly hyped as the Cowboys after last Saturday’s match against the Sharks at 1300SMILES Stadium, which was by any reasonable measure one of the most average North Queensland performances of the last six months. Hot off the heels of a Grand Final, a World Club Series victory and a gracious match against the Broncos at Bundaberg, it’s understandable that fans wanted to give the Cows the benefit of the doubt. Hell, I’m a massive fan myself – they’re one of my favourite teams in the game, and Thurston is my favourite player. Similarly, it’d be hard to deny that the Cows have had a particularly challenging preseason, starting their training later than most of the other teams and compounding their already intense travel schedule with a fifty-hour commute to and from the Rhinos’ home ground at Headingley Stadium.
At the same time, an average first performance is not necessarily a long-term problem for the Cowboys, who lost their first three last year and won a total of eight games by six points or less. More than most other teams in the competition, they can take a while to get into their stride, but the upshot of that is the kind of free-flowing, relaxed, assured footy that they can commandeer when they’re at their peak. On top of all that, there’s no doubt that North Queensland are a team that perform particularly well when they’re in front of a home crowd. In part, that’s a result of their remoteness in the competition, which gives 1300SMILES the solidarity and synergy of Country Rugby League, but also because the Cows have the kind of natural advantage in Townsville that comes from training fifteen or so degrees of latitude north of most of the other teams. It made sense, then, that their performance on Saturday night suffered from a particularly low turnout in 1300SMILES, thanks to heavy rain and poor conditions at the ground itself.
On top of all that, the 2015 Grand Final was singular enough that pundits still seemed to be projecting something of its achievement onto Round 1, especially since the Cows were the first club in more than thirty years to rock up with the exact same seventeen players as they fielded for the Final, something they also did at the World Club Challenge. Nevertheless – and I say this as a Cows fan – there was something a bit ridiculous about the media hype surrounding their performance, with several publications going so far as to crown their 18-14 win over the Sharks as the “best possible result.” If anything, what made the game so incredible was how resiliently Cronulla-Sutherland stayed neck and neck with the reigning champions, actually dominating them in the opening half and staying 14-14 until the 74th minute, when Ethan Lowe broke the deadlock to win it for North Queensland, eluding four Sharks defenders after Michael Ennis’ attempt to charge down a Thurston field goal went the wrong way. Having also set up Justin O’Neill for the Cowboys’ first try of the season, Lowe was the Cowboys’ best asset on Saturday night, a reminder that, despite Thurston’s presence, this is one of the least celebrity-driven vehicles in the NRL, with different players stepping into the spotlight in different contexts.
For Cows fans, though, it must have been a little heartstopping to see just how close the Sharks came. Twice they could have won it were it not for a clumsy drop – first by Luke Lewis shortly before half-time, and second by Andrew Fifita as he was about to sneak in a cheeky try before the final siren. With only six minutes to go and both teams on 14 points, it must have seemed like déjà vu for the Cows, and were it not for Lowe’s final bit of inspiration, North Queensland would have seen out 2015 and seen in 2016 with Golden Point. That they didn’t was partly due to the Sharks’ clumsiness with the ball, but also the strength of their own defence. Nevertheless, despite moments of Cowboys brilliance – Justin O’Neill and Kane Linnett scoring two tries within five minutes of each other was a high point – the Sharks ground it out like only they know how to do, forcing the Cows into quite a brutal brand of footy that saw Paul Gallen taken off in the sixty-fifth minute and James Maloney put on report for a cannonball tackle that had James Tamou limping off with the kind of look on his face you usually only see at Origin.
That was all enhanced by Thurston’s relative anonymity on the field. I say “relative,” of course, because there’s virtually no player who can match JT’s presence, but even for him he was fairly quiet, with his one big moment of the night – the field goal that was charged down by Ennis – subsumed into Ethan Lowe’s match-saving try. Given that both Thurston and Maloney had four from four in their kicking game, there was also a sense that Thurston’s boot wasn’t quite as supreme as when he’s up against lesser halves, with the result that this felt like his most diminutive performance since well before the Grand Final. There’s nothing wrong with that – like his team, JT can take a while to warm up, while part of what makes him so brilliant as a captain, player and halfback is that he doesn’t need to showboat or be a celebrity in every game he plays. Saturday night was one of those matches where Thurston gave his all to the team at the expense of his own spotlight, which is a testament to his sportsmanship but inevitably made the game feel a little anticlimactic for a first round, especially after last year’s Grand Final.
For all those reasons, then, I found the hype surrounding the Cows a bit misplaced, although not uncharacteristic of this first round of footy either. If anything has characterised Round 1, it’s been the way in which the so-called underdogs of the NRL – Eels, Sharks, Dragons – have managed to hold their own against the more prestigious teams – Storm, Sea Eagles, Broncos – by refusing to allow them to win without a decent fight. It’s strange, then, that the media have rallied around the Storm and the Cowboys, since in both those cases it’s really been the performance of the Dragons and the Sharks that has been the most remarkable. At the same time, that bias isn’t surprising, since it increasingly feels like 2016 is going to be a bit of watershed year for the NRL, with a lot of young guns coming into their own and big name teams like the Storm, the Sea Eagles and the Roosters starting to glimpse the end of their recent dynasties. In this environment, it’s understandable that media pundits want to pay tribute to teams like the Cows and the Storm, but it’s important not to forget about the unsung teams and the up-and-comers in the process.