With 15 minutes of St George Illawarra’s final-round clash against Canterbury remaining, North Queensland’s 2017 campaign looked dead and buried.
Four weeks later, the Cowboys stand just 80 minutes away from completing the unlikeliest fairytale in NRL history.
Written off following season-ending injuries to co-captains Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston, the Cowboys limped towards the end of the regular season with just one win in the last six rounds, leaving them vulnerable to several fast-finishing clubs.
But the also-ran Bulldogs produced a stunning late comeback in Round 26 to thwart the Dragons and keep the Cowboys in the finals.
And they have parlayed that reprieve into three consecutive boilovers and a grand final appearance.
The patched-up side – spearheaded by Thurston’s brilliant stand-in Michael Morgan and back-row freight train Jason Taumalolo – has shown incredible fortitude and poise to eliminate Cronulla, Parramatta and Sydney Roosters, overturning second-half deficits in each finals upset.
Their charge has captured the imagination of the rugby league world, including former Cowboys greats and Queensland Origin reps Adrian Vowles and Kevin Campion, who believe they can topple dominant minor premiers Melbourne on Sunday to become the first team to win the premiership from eighth.
“All the pressure was on them to make the eight, but once you’re in the finals all that pressure disappears and you can play some footy, and that’s what they’ve been doing,” Vowles, a 1995 Cowboys original, told The New Daily.
“They’ve got the ability in their team to win the grand final … they’ll ask a lot of questions of the Storm defence. They’re a massive chance.”
Campion, who played in four grand finals for St George, Brisbane and New Zealand before featuring in the first North Queensland team to qualify for the finals in 2004, is similarly confident of a history-making triumph.
“The hardest thing about the grand final is getting there, but once you’re there whoever turns up on the day will win,” he told The New Daily.
“With that momentum on their side, they’re so positive, they’ve got such a belief in themselves and anything can happen on the day. The pressure is certainly on the Storm.”
Though game-breaker Morgan’s control and clutch ability and the explosive Taumalolo’s eye-watering work-rate have attracted most of the plaudits, Campion says ice-cool coach Paul Green, a former Origin teammate, has been the key to galvanising the team.
“It’s a great ingredient if you’ve got a team that loves playing for the coach, and that will go a long way on Sunday,” Campion said.
“He’s just got really good composure, everyone looks relaxed right through the whole club, you don’t see ‘Greeny’ carrying on like a pork chop in the coach’s box.
“He’s done an amazing job at the Cowboys in the four years he’s been at the helm.”
The Cowboys’ courage, grit and commitment have won a legion of admirers, and Vowles reveals those qualities were instilled at the Townsville-based club from day one.
“We didn’t have a good team (in 1995), but before our first game we were laying turf at the stadium as part of our training sessions to get it ready for the first game,” he recalled.
“That work ethic hasn’t left the Cowboys – it’s been ingrained from the start, and it’s just got better and better.”
Another advantage the club has always been able to rely on is the unwavering support of their devoted fanbase; the turnout to greet the team at Townsville airport throughout the finals has been inspirational.
“It’s massive, because the players know it’s not just about them – it’s about the town and the region,” Vowles said.
“I’m a massive Cowboys fan and I’m proud of what they’re doing. I know a lot of the old boys are the same, they’re proud because they know they played a part in the Cowboys’ journey.”