North Queensland blew a perfect opportunity to make a 17th season premiership win a reality. Win, and play the Storm in Melbourne for a spot in the grand final. Manly were coming off a hard loss and were without a couple of stars. The Cowboys were in red-hot form and on a confident winning streak.
Some will say the Cowboys were robbed by referring blunders. But you can’t blame the refs’. The Cowboys lost it for themselves through a failure to capitalise on field position and possession. In the first half their attack was clustered, bunched and flat. And by flat I mean they gave themselves no room. They looked to play up the centre with their big men, but their big men were matched by Manly’s big men. In the second half they started to spread the ball. Manly’s edges were weak. This season, their centres' are so good defensively; they have been able to look after the wingers. Keeping them in check when under the pump. But they weren’t able to exploit it enough, as they tried too hard to real in Manly’s controversial lead.
The cowboy’s newest key player, Michael Morgan was underused. Thurston tried to overplay his hand. At first, this didn’t just seem like Thurston trying too hard, it was as if Neil Henry hadn’t bothered to instruct Morgan to get his hands on the ball. Thurston moved to five-eighth at the start of this year, yet last night he played first receiver the whole eighty minutes. Why bother donning the no. 6? Even when he did make his way to the 2nd receiver position, Matty Bowen was in at halfback. Where was Morgan? I’m not sure Neil Henry did his home work and came up with a plan to beat the eagles.
The Cowboys have been on the build the last couple of years since coming 15th in 2008, 12th in 2009 and 15th in 2010. They underwent a review and major changes at administrative level, with even Phil Gould running his eye through the Townsville franchise. They have signed some good players in recent years, and with the world’s best as your ‘five-eighth’, and arguably the two best props in the world, they were looking in good sted.
However, NQ didn’t play finals football for the majority of the match. A lot of the players lacked the desperation and ruthlessness required to win at this level. Look how Watmough, Kite and Foran dug deep in defence and ran like there was no tomorrow in attack, which there wasn’t if they lost.
It begs the question; will a ‘provincial’ club ever win a premiership again in the near future? The new finals system is going to make it a lot harder if the AFL's finals history is anything to go by. Canberra, North Queensland, Cronulla and New Zealand, are all teams that fit under this title. What do the top 4 sides, and probably the final 4 sides have in common? Great Coaching. Without a great coach, you’re nowhere.
Just look at the Dragons, they spent a motza to hire a gun and bang! Their gun delivered a bullet. A premiership bullet. It might have cost them so much they now have to settle for an assistant as their head coach, but it was worth it. Win a premiership every 10-15 years, and you keep the fans happy. These provincial clubs need to hire a gun coach to even be in a position, to achieve a premiership. Gun coaches have proven you don’t need to sign big names; they make their players’ big names. Provincial clubs also appear content to finish where they do. Cronulla were happy to make the finals, North Queensland most probably thinking the same. Neil Henry thinking his credentials justified and job saved with his 6th placed finish to fall back on when the coaching merry-go-round comes up next year.
To touch on the referee’s, one thing showed last night. It reared its head again. INCONSISTENCY. In games, and between games of this year, there has been inconsistency. Taufua’s knock on in goal robbed the cowboys of field position and sapped their energy. The roosters were pinned for a grounding a few weeks backs exactly the same. Thurston said it right earlier when he said, “That’s twice we’ve been robbed”. Finally in the 67th minute Morgan got his hands on the ball and they almost scored. All too late. They rushed, and tried “Hail Mary’s” in the last 10 minutes.
By full time it was obvious Thurston had overplayed his hand. It’s not his fault, he has had the side, club, town and state (North of Brisbane) riding on his shoulders for years. He's had no help until this year. But his help never got involved. If Neil Henry didn’t mention for Morgan to get his hands on the ball in the pre-game plan or talk, then he sure should have send a message out during the game. I don’t think he has the credentials to bring them a premiership. It’s sad for Thurston and sad for North Queensland, who may lose their marquee player after next year. Visibly upset after the game, JT appeared to have a dry throat and struggled for words.
Forget the ref’s decision; the cowboys lost it for themselves.