ARL, Cadigan, Community Centre, Doug Kingston, Kerry Boustead, Lee Kernaghan, NQ Cowboys, NRL, Ron McLean, Saunders Beach, Saunders Beach Community Centre Association Inc, Stockland Stadium, Thuringowa City Council, Townsville City Council, Wests Tigers, Willows Paceway
In their twenty-first playing year on 4th October 2015 the Cowboys team won the National Rugby League premiership for the first time.
Rugby League is played by a team of thirteen players and at the highest level is a combat sport, made up of hard grinds designed to weaken the opposition and allowing for flashes of physical and tactical brilliance.
A few men in North Queensland knew that local League players possessed these qualities. At the end of the 1980s and early 1990s these few men pushed and in some cases shoved until the national body took notice.
In his book 20 Years in the Saddle: North Queensland Cowboys 1995 – 2014 Neil Cadigan writes “It seems folly to try to identify anyone in particular as the founding father of the North Queensland Cowboys.” He mentions the following:
Ron McLean was a newspaper manager (Townsville Bulletin) who became the North Queensland Cowboys first chairman. He lifted the public perception of a North Queensland team in the national competition out of pipedream status and into a viable proposition.
Kerry Boustead, the Innisfail flyer who retired at the end of the 1990 season (and who sits on the current Cowboys board) became the public face of the campaign to have a North Queensland field a team in the national competition. Boustead became the first General Manager.
Doug Kingston, sports journalist witnessed the initial enthusiasm displayed by the North Queensland public when a national match (Brisbane Broncos V Parramatta Eels in the Panasonic Cup) was played at the Townsville Sports Reserve in May 1989. Since that show of the support Kingston was there at every opportunity to keep the momentum going.
A group of business and professional men were keen to see North Queensland represented on the national stage. They became the first board, donating their time, business knowledge and ultimately money.
The national body at that time was the Australian Rugby League (ARL) and this body had certain requirements for a club seeking entry to their competition. One of the most pressing for North Queensland was the prerequisite of a controlling lease of a 20,000 seat stadium. The historic home of rugby league in Townsville was the Townsville Sports Reserve but this proved to be clearly unsuitable for a national competition for many reasons.
Looking wider there was the Willows Paceway, constructed by the Queensland Government in 1985 for $5 million. By the end of 1991 harness racing was in decline in Townsville and the state government faced the prospect of having responsibility for the Paceways maintenance for a long time in the future.
On 30 September 1991 a delegation from the North Queensland Cowboys went to Sydney for the submission to the ARL. Doug Kingston hired a stage coach with four Clydesdales to pull it around Sydney’s CBD at lunch time. However the theatrics were wasted when the ARL declined to admit any teams until 1994.
The Cowboys used this time wisely. They appointed their first coach, Grant Bell and sealed a deal for the Willows Paceway. The Queensland Government gave a 25 year lease at $1 a year (and in the end $500,000). Townsville and Thuringowa City Councils contributed funds on a population basis for stadium development.
From the first the steering team’s philosophy had been to involve all of North Queensland, to give the Cowboys brand as much coverage as possible. To that end training squads were set-up in Townsville, Mackay, Cairns, Innisfail and Mt Isa of 15 – 20 players aged 16 – 18.
On 1 December 1993 the front page of the Townsville Bulletin under a headline ‘WE’RE IN” bore a photo of a jubilant Kerry Boustead. For everyone associated with the Cowboys bid this was a relief and it gave an end date for work on the renovated Stockland Stadium.
It all came together for their first home match on Saturday 11 March 1995. Cadigan writes: “Never had a sporting event in the north created so much expectation, attention and such an intense and prolonged media build-up.” Lee Kernaghan sang the new club song “C’mon the Cowboys”. After persistent rain overnight and the morning of the 11th, 23,000 people saw Laurie Spina lead the Cowboys out to face a Terry Lamb captained Canterbury side.
The Cowboys went down 32-16, not a result the fans hoped for. They won against the Steelers at Wollongong on 30 April and over 18,000 fans watched them win their first home game against Wests on July 8.
However the 1995 season was rife with back-room deals. News Ltd had launched its plan to challenge to ARL with a rival competition called Super League. On the 20 April 1995 the Cowboys’ Board voted to leave the competition that they had fought so hard to join. For a 50% share Super League guaranteed to pay off existing debts and to commit another $5 million for stadium improvements. In the end it came down to a question for the Directors: What would you do if it was your company?
After nationwide court challenges the Super League competition took place in 1997 only. In 1998 the two competitions merged and became the National Rugby League (NRL).
The Cowboys had mixed success until 2005 when they vied with Wests Tigers for the NRL premiership. Unfortunately for the Cowboys fans Wests Tigers won 32-16.
At Saunders Beach local Cowboys fans gathered in the Community Centre hall to watch the match on the big screen…
…and endured the Wests Tigers celebrating their victory.
These photos are from albums thoughtfully left in the care of the Community Centre by departing locals.
The NQ Cowboys: Matt Sing, Rod Jensen, Ty Williams, Mitchell Sargent, David Faiumu, Brett Firman, Matt Bowen, Steve Southern, Luke O’Donnell, Johnathan Thurston, Steve Tronc, Paul Rauhihi, Paul Bowman, Justin Smith, Aaron Payne, Josh Hannay, Travis Norton.
Coach: Graham Murray
The Cowboys reached the grand final again in 2015. In front of almost 83,000 at Sydney’s ANZ Stadium the North Queensland Cowboys defeated the Brisbane Broncos in golden point extra-time 17-16. It was 82 minutes and 17 seconds of mesmerising television and in the days that followed the Saunders Beach fans, old and new, relived their experience.
The players were (with their numbers):
1 Lachlan Coote 2 Kyle Feldt 3 Justin O’Neill
4 Kane Linnett 5 Antonio Winterstein
6 Michael Morgan 7 Johnathan Thurston
8 Matthew Scott 9 Jake Granville 10 James Tamou
11 Gavin Cooper 12 Ethan Lowe 13 Jason Taumalolo
14 Rory Kostjasyn 15 John Asiata
16 Scott Bolton 17 Ben Hannant
Coach: Paul Green
To quote the editor of the Townsville Bulletin on the dust cover of his newspaper’s publication 2015 Ride to Glory:
This was more than a win for a football team, this was a win for the whole of North Queensland.
And to show it the Provan-Summons Trophy toured for three weeks through coastal and outback NQ and Port Moresby at the end of 2015.
As the 2016 season begins Cowboys fans dare to hope the team can win back-to-back.
As for the players – they seem to believe it if their between-season performance in World Cup Challenge counts!
Butterworth L, Andersen J, Thompson M, Kingston D, 2015 Ride to Glory. The NQ Cowboys’ Amazing Journey to a Maiden NRL Premiership. The North Queensland Newspaper Company Limited, News Corp Australia, Townsville, Qld
Cadigan, N 2015, 20 Years in the Saddle. North Queensland Cowboys 1995-2014. Playright Publishing Ptl Ltd, Caringbah, NSW
O’Neil, R 2016. Trophy Tour Treat for Fans, Townsville Bulletin 5 March 2016 Supplement, Go Cowboys, Home Game Guide Cowboys V Sharks, Saturday, March 5, 2016.