A Tale of Two Halves: Paul Green, Michael Morgan & the Rise of the Cowboys
Last Saturday night the North Queensland Cowboys achieved the unthinkable, toppling the Sydney Roosters and surging into the 2017 NRL Grand Final. Just a month ago the Cowboys’ season looked over, as St George Illawarra led the Bulldogs in Round 26. Had the Red V hung on, North Queensland would not have been playing finals football, but after snaring eighth spot the Cowboys have disposed of Cronulla, Parramatta and the Roosters in clinical style to book a unlikely date with the Melbourne Storm in the decider.
Coming into the finals series, Queensland State of Origin coach Kevin Walters described the Cowboys as “cannon-fodder.”
He wasn’t alone.
When asked about North Queensland’s premiership prospects, legendary backrower Gorden Tallis said that “every other team has a genuine chance.”
Neither meant any disrespect; their comments simply highlighted the seemingly dire situation North Queensland were in and echoed the expert consensus. What has followed has been arguably the most incredible finals run in rugby league history.
The truth is that many had written off the Cowboys much earlier than Walters and Tallis.
It was widely touted that their season was as good as finished when enforcer Matt Scott suffered an ACL injury in round two this year. The Cowboys’ forward stocks were already lean, having farewelled former international front rowers James Tamou and Ben Hannant in the off-season. Scott, comfortably the best prop forward in the world, left a gaping hole.
Veteran bench forward Scott Bolton became the Cowboys’ number one front rower. Patrick Kaufusi, boasting 13 career games, partnered Bolton until he, too, suffered a season-ending injury in May. Utility John Asiata, with three starting caps to his name, was next in line. All competent footballers, sure, but you don’t win competitions with merely competent footballers – especially in the front row.
The Cowboys were in serious trouble, but, of course, one can never write off a team containing Johnathan Thurston.
Then came State of Origin.
Whatever remaining hopes the Cowboys held completely disintegrated in Origin II. Thurston’s arm dangled helplessly by his side throughout the encounter, seemingly hanging by the same thread as North Queensland’s title ambitions. ‘JT’ courageously played on, helping the Maroons snare victory with a memorable conversion, but soon after it was confirmed that he would require shoulder surgery. It was a fairy-tale conclusion to a glittering Origin career, but a bitter end to North Queensland’s season.
Or so it seemed.
Surely this was impossible to overcome. Thurston, considered by many as the greatest player to lace a boot, had been the Cowboys’ conductor for over a decade. The club’s fortunes had swayed with his every movement during that time.
And, yet, here we are, with North Queensland in the 2017 Grand Final. How is it even possible?
It would be easy to dismiss the Cowboys’ achievement as simply a lucky run. Luck always plays its role, but there is far more to the story.
To really understand the club’s current success, we have to go back – not just to start of this season, but way back – to 2014 when a rookie coach named Paul Green started his tenure. The Cowboys had finished eighth in 2013 under Neil Henry, only scraping into the post-season with a late carefree surge. It was far from a happy camp and things were looking fairly bleak. Club legend Matt Bowen had departed and his replacement Lachlan Coote went down with a campaign-ending knee injury in the pre-season. It was a time of great uncertainty; Green did not walk into a club primed for success.
Those who had followed Green knew he was a sharp operator, a former State of Origin halfback who’d won back-to-back premierships coaching Wynnum Manly in the Queensland Cup. The NRL, though, is a different ballgame and the Cowboys were seen as a poisoned chalice – a team blessed with one of the greatest footballers of all time, but simultaneously cursed by being almost entirely reliant on that one man.
The new coach would need to shake things up.
It didn’t take long for Green to put his stamp on the team. Michael Morgan, a fringe half/five-eighth who had been spending most of his time in Queensland Cup, was named at fullback for round one. It doesn’t seem a particularly brave move in hindsight, but at the time Morgan had made a total of 30 first grade appearances across the previous four seasons – none at fullback. Green didn’t mind that Morgan had no experience at the back, he saw potential and went all-in.
There were also changes in the forwards. Explosive backrowers Tariq Sims and Jason Taumalolo, utilised by previous coach Neil Henry as bench impact players, were promoted to the starting line-up at the expense of the more tradesmen-like Glenn Hall and Joel Riethmuller.
Again, it may appear an easy decision from our current vantage, but Taumalolo, like Morgan, had spent the previous four seasons in limbo. He’d played a total of 35 games, but never cemented a first grade spot. In the process, he’d earned that most unwanted of reputations – talented, but lazy.
Green backed Taumalolo and Morgan heavily.
Morgan’s previous stints had been marred by errors and a seeming lack of confidence. This time he was given a licence to roam and encouraged to run the football. In many ways, it was a badly needed second chance.
Taumalolo was given the opportunity to start and challenged to play longer minutes. Green rapidly ratcheted up the giant backrower’s workload and was willing to accept the results. It was plain to see that Taumalolo was struggling at times – his charges towards the end of a match were more lumbering than devastating – but Green stayed the course, confident that the gamble would pay off.
The Cowboys had a predictably slow start to that year, but by mid-season the side began to look formidable. They eventually landed in fifth position on the table, winning eight of their last 10, and were only denied a grand final appearance via a controversial loss to eventual premiers the Sydney Roosters in one of the greatest finals matches ever played.
It was a case of what could have been.
The signs were promising for 2015, but there were still some pieces of the puzzle missing.
Damaging forwards Ashton and Tariq Sims, who both produced career best form under Green, departed to other clubs. International centre Brent Tate retired and talented three-quarter Curtis Rona made his way down to Canterbury.
The club made some astute signings in veterans Justin O’Neill and Ben Hannant to cover the losses, but it was a relatively unknown bench hooker who would have the biggest impact.
Green recruited Jake Granville – a player with whom he’d shared success at Wynnum Manly – from Brisbane. Granville was a completely unconventional player (in the Queensland Cup, he’d split his time between fullback and hooker) and at 26 years of age, he’d made a grand total of 10 first grade appearances. Green knew the Cowboys needed a threat around the ruck, something they’d missed sorely since Aaron Payne’s retirement, and saw the unorthodox Granville as the perfect solution. It was another of Green’s gambles.
When Lachlan Coote finally returned from injury, Green pushed Morgan up into the front line. Many questioned the wisdom of shifting Morgan, with doubts about whether Coote could recapture his best form after a string of serious injuries. Green insisted that for the Cowboys to be a genuine title threat, both players would have to be in the team somewhere. He perched Coote on the left edge and told Morgan to marshal the right. The Cowboys would adopt a dual-fullback structure.
History, of course, shows that Green steered North Queensland to a maiden premiership in just his second year as head coach.
When the Cowboys did claim the title, the narrative was all about the brilliance of Johnathan Thurston – and who could deny the legendary number seven his moment? – but even the greatest champions need an environment in which their talents can be amplified.
What went under the radar was that, in just two years, Green had built a completely new spine which was the most deadly in the competition. Lock forward Taumalolo stamped himself as rugby league’s most damaging forward; Morgan became one of the game’s most potent five-eighths; the classy Coote proved he could mix it with the best fullbacks in the NRL; and the little-known Granville made 28 appearances, scored 10 tries and was the club’s Player’s Player. Not bad.
Thurston himself certainly doesn’t underestimate the impact Green has had.
“It’s not hard to see what he’s created, the culture he has driven and he’s got the players that love playing for him,” Thurston said. “What he’s done since he arrived, not only on the field but off the field, he has taken the club to a new level.”
Why does this all matter?
Well, fast forward to 2017 and the Cowboys are seemingly in disarray. They’ve used 32 players throughout the season (a figure only eclipsed by the hapless Gold Coast Titans), lost two all-time greats to serious injury, and yet, they’ve conquered all before them.
How have they been able to produce such a remarkable run?
Well, unlike a few years earlier, this is now a rugby league club stacked with leaders. Taumalolo, Coote and Granville have developed into seasoned professionals, joining the likes of Gavin Cooper, Justin O’Neill and Antonio Winterstein. Others such as Kyle Feldt, Ethan Lowe and Coen Hess have likewise come of age under Green.
And then, of course, there’s Morgan.
Much has already been made of his performances. It’s a team game, but Morgan does deserve special praise.
With Thurston out, the Cowboys simply had to change. Their structure was not going to work without a dominant halfback and Morgan was not a natural fit. An outstanding runner of the football, he was never a scheming, organising playmaker. In fact, with the magical boot of Thurston available (ably deputised by Coote’s left foot), Morgan rarely even kicked the Steeden prior to 2017.
He would have to completely revamp his style for the Cowboys to stand a chance.
And so he did.
On Saturday night, Morgan speared kicks into the corners of the field with unwavering control, finding the touchline when he needed and open pasture when he wanted. He sent towering torpedo bombs soaring into the atmosphere using both the inside and outside of the boot, creating constant pressure on the opposition’s back three. He attacked the line with purpose at every opportunity, looking inside and out, and sent arrow-like passes onto the chests of teammates in space. When the time came, he slotted the crucial field goal – the final nail in the Roosters’ coffin – just as he’d done two weeks earlier against the defending premiers. It was a remarkable performance, as good as anything his legendary predecessor could have conjured. Many players have stepped up for the Cowboys, but there’s no doubt that the team could not have gotten anywhere near the Grand Final without Morgan’s evolution.
A humble character, Morgan is always generous in his praise of Thurston, who he says has helped him tremendously throughout the season. He’s also highlighted the influence of Origin teammate Cooper Cronk, who provided some important words of guidance during the ANZAC test preparations.
Of course, there’s also another former halfback behind the scenes gently pulling the strings.
“Greeny doesn’t get enough credit for the role he plays as a teacher. He’s been a huge influence on my career and that’s been evident again this season,” Morgan said.
Indeed, Green has done everything a great coach is supposed to do – create a culture, instil discipline, develop systems and help each player reach his potential. He has built an outstanding unit, not through rampant talent acquisition, but through constantly improving – and in some cases, completely revolutionising – the players at his disposal.
Make no mistake, the Cowboys deserve a place in the decider.
Can the fairy-tale continue against the mighty Melbourne Storm?
But if it does, it will be in no small part due to the brilliance of two halves – Morgan and Green.