Greatest Teams Ever Pt 9: North Queensland Cowboys

One of the newer teams in the Australian rugby league scene, the North Queensland Cowboys have boasted some tremendous players over their few short years that eventually culminated in a maiden premiership success in 2015. A fewer pool of players makes picking the team harder but after research and work, we narrowed it down and picked the best 17.

Again, we must stress, that whilst the Cowboys have had numerous players join them over the years from rival clubs, our greatest team ever is made up of players that have played almost exclusively for the Cowboys.

So, here we have it, our list of the greatest players to have ever donned the Cowboys jersey:

1. Matt Bowen – Born and raised in Cairns, Bowen had immense interest from several clubs outside of interest but in the end, he chose to stay close to home and signed with the Cowboys. He played in the Cowboys side that made the reserve grade competition in 2000 and was then selected for the Queensland U19’s team that year.
Making his debut in Rd 1, 2001, Bowen went on to play 15 games for the Cowboys scoring six tries and kicking 1 goal. Initially, he started as a bench utility and a five-eighth before he played his primary position of fullback for the final seven games of the season. He was also selected in the Junior Kangaroos side alongside several of his Cowboys teammates.
Although he finished the season at fullback well, he was shifted to the wing with Tim Brasher the preferred candidate for the custodian role. However, after Brasher was injured, Bowen became the long-term fullback and excelled in the role scoring 12 tries in 24 games.
He enjoyed yet another good season in 2003 and was rewarded with his first Origin opportunity. He scored his first hat-trick for the club to go with 20 total tries for the season. The Cowboys maiden finals appearance came in 2004 with Bowen one of the key factors behind their push towards it, although they fell just short of the grand final. He was again selected for Queensland as well as making his Test debut against France.
2005 resulted in a major shift for the Cowboys with Johnathan Thurston joining the club. This signing would see Bowen and Thurston become one of the most potent duos in the NRL competition. Their potency was on show immediately as they both led the side to the 2005 grand final. Although they were unsuccessful in the end, Bowen finished the year with 21 tries, the most in the competition.
2006 was a lean year for the custodian in several regards as he played just one game for Queensland that year, scored only five tries for the season and saw the Cowboys miss the finals.
2007 was a totally different proposition, however, as he regained his competition try-scoring mantle and led the league in both line breaks and tackle breaks. He returned to the Queensland side, helped the Cowboys make the finals and his peers named him as the Rugby League Players’ Association Player of the Year. He also won the Cowboys’ Player of the Year, Rugby League Week Player of the Year and was named Dally M Fullback of the Year.
2008 was a tough overall season for Bowen who only played a handful of games due to a knee injury that ruled him out for the season. He started 2009 well and by Rd 20, he had scored 12 tries in 20 games before he, unfortunately, suffered another knee injury that ruled him out for the remainder of that season. Bowen missed half of the 2010 season due to the injury he suffered in 2009 but upon his return, he did play in his 200th match for the club. The 2010 season was one to forget for the Cowboys fans.
2011 brought about greener pastures as Bowen found his try-scoring mojo and surpassed Paul Bowman to become the Cowboys most capped player at that time. He was selected for the Prime Minister’s XIII side again and played in his 250th match with the club in 2012.
2013 ended up being Bowen’s last with the Cowboys in the NRL, informing the fans and the team that he would be off to England to play with the Wigan Warriors. After his Wigan stint, he did return to the Cowboys to play in their NRL Auckland Nines side before playing with QLD Cup side, the Townsville Blackhawks.

2. Ty Williams – The Cairns junior, recognised by the headgear he wore whilst playing on the wing, had a successful career with the Cowboys. Debuting in 2002, he was a raw player but as he continued to find his feet, his try-scoring ability and link-up play saw him become an elite winger in the game by the end of 2005. He was a part of the Cowboys grand final appearance in 2005 and boasted a handy try-scoring record with 85 tries from his 151 games with the club.
2006 was a tough year for Williams after he injured his Achilles tendon which saw him miss the entire season and some of 2007. Upon his return, his form became rather sporadic but he always had the heart. Ultimately, niggling injuries lessened his game time and he made a decision to retire at the end of the 2010 season from the NRL. He would go on to play for the Northern Pride in several seasons, captaining the side during his time there.
His versatility was a key feature to his game, able to cover fullback, centre and wing in a pinch.

3. Paul Bowman – Hailing from Newcastle, Bowman made his debut in the Cowboys inaugural season in 1995. He found his way slowly but surely and soon became a mainstay of the side, locking down a centre position. In 1999, he enjoyed his best year to date after he was named the Cowboys’ Player of the Year before winning it again in 2000, sharing it with Julian O’Neill. Captaining the side for several seasons from 2001 to 2004, Bowman was alwaysa favourite among the Cowboys fans.
Regarded as one of the best defensive centres of his time, Bowman played in 203 games for the club, a record at that time. He was a key member in the Cowboys 2005 campaign that saw them make the grand final for the first time in their history and then announced his retirement at the end of the 2007 season. He played 12 games for Queensland in that time.
His time at the Cowboys did not end there, though, as he had a stint as assistant coach from 2008 to 2010. Given the impact he had on the side, the club’s best and fairest has been renamed to the Paul Bowman Medal.

4. Kane Linnett – Perhaps a surprising choice in this team, Linnett is one of the few centres to have played for the Cowboys that has accumulated a large number of games over the years. His career began at the Roosters, however, playing in 23 games for the club before moving to the Cowboys ahead of the 2012 season.
In this year, he set the club record for metres made in a game by a centre with 234 metres and was named the Cowboys Most Improved Player. By this stage, he was a mainstay of the side, playing in every single game of the 2013 season and scoring 9 tries in the process. He then represented Scotland in the 2013 World Cup.
His good form transcended into the NRL Auckland Nines in 2014 as he was a part of the victorious Cowboys team and was named in the Team of the Tournament. The milestones continued in 2015, as Linnett played his 100th game in the NRL before his Cowboys side went on to win their maiden grand final. He was then a part of the Cowboys winning World Club Challenge side before representing Scotland again at the 2016 Four Nations.

5. Ashley Graham – A Cairns Kangaroos junior, Graham’s first crack in the NRL came in 2002 with the Parramatta Eels where he impressed early to keep other teams interested. He won the club’s rookie of the year that year.
In 2007, after just 41 games with the Eels over 5 seasons, he moved to the Cowboys and from there, he began to flourish. Compared to previous years at the top level, 2007 was by far his best as he improved out of sight and performed brilliantly for the Cowboys that season, scoring 18 tries in just 22 games. Continuing to toil and score tries, Graham was awarded the club’s player of the year award in 2011. His stats that year justified the gong at the end of the season, as he finished first in metres gained, first in hit-ups and first in highest average metres. He also led the Cowboys try-scoring ranks for the third time with three tries. 2012 saw Graham play his 150th NRL game and his 100th for the Cowboys. 2012 was another productive year for Graham as he scored 21 tries over the course of the season. Unfortunately, 2013 brought about the end of his career as Graham required wrist surgery and was forced into early retirement.
In total, he played 202 games in his career, 161 of which came with the North Queensland Cowboys. At present, he works with the club as Strength and Conditioning Coach of the Holden Cup side.

6. Josh Hannay – Hannay’s career could have started two years earlier at just 16 years of age but the ARL vetoed that move as he was not 16 years old at the beginning of year. Instead, he had to wait until 1998 to get his debut and from there, he became an established first-grade centre up until the 2006 NRL season.
In that time, he became the club’s greatest point-scorer at the time and enjoyed individual success as a player during his time with the club. He was a member of the side that made the 2005 grand final and played in two games for Queensland.
After 150 games, 49 tries and 383 goals (totalling 882 points), Hannay departed the club and joined the Cronulla Sharks for a short stint. That preceded a stint with the Crusaders in England before he joined the Mackay Cutters for two seasons. He then coached in numerous roles.

7. Johnathan Thurston – Arguably the greatest player to don the Cowboys jersey, the man nicknamed ‘JT’ has done tremendous things as a player and achieved remarkable consistency in his career.
Initially making his debut with the Canterbury Bulldogs, Thurston’s final year at the club culminated in a grand final success as a player off the bench.
In 2005, he made the move to the Cowboys and has been with the club since, never looking back. He quickly became the starting halfback at the club, played for Queensland and won his first Dally M Medal after what was a stellar season for both Thurston and the Cowboys. They made the grand final that season, only to fall at the final hurdle.
Thurston has a knack for scoring tries and in 2006, he managed to score 11 tries from 17 games, including a hat-trick early on in the season. 2007 saw him rewarded with the captaincy and he continued his good, consistent form, winning his second Dally M Medal as well as the Dally M Halfback of the Year.
2008 was a bit of a low year for all at the Cowboys as a 15-game losing streak effectively ended any chances of a finals berth but Thurston did play in his 100th NRL match that year. 2009 was around the time whereby Thurston became the go-to man in the halves for Queensland and he was part of another successful series. Although he just missed out on the Dally M for a third time, he did win the Dally M Halfback of the Year Award yet again.
2010 started off with an appearance in the inaugural All-Stars game with the Indigenous side before going on to win a man-of-the-match award during Origin that year. 2011 threatened to be derailed by a serious knee injury but Thurston bounced back and after a tremendous start to the 2011 season and an equally good finish, he won the Golden Boot Award.
2012 saw Thurston play in his 150th NRL game as well as taking out the Dally M Five-Eighth of the Year Award. In 2013, whilst the Cowboys were knocked out of the finals controversially, Thurston’s greatest achievement of that year came at the World Cup when he broke Mick Cronin’s record of 309 for most points scored by a Kangaroo.
2013 was capped off with a second Golden Boot success for Thurston and he enjoyed yet another stellar season in 2014. It culminated in further controversy, again in the finals, but Thurston took home the individual honours as he won the Dally M Medal for a third time – tied with Jarryd Hayne – Dally M Five-Eighth of the Year and the Provan-Summons Medal.
2015 was perhaps the best year of Thurston’s career not from an individual perspective but a club perspective, as it was capped off a maiden premiership win for the North Queensland Cowboys. Thurston was again instrumental throughout the entire season and won another Dally M Medal – his fourth and currently a record – Dally M Halfback of the Year, Dally M Captain of the Year alongside teammate Matt Scott and a third Golden Boot. He also won the Clive Churchill Medal in the Cowboys grand final success as well.
Thurston also won numerous club awards throughout his career as well as Origin awards, Rugby League Player Association Awards and RLIF Awards.

8. Matt Scott – Born in Longreach, it made sense for Scott to play for a Queensland team and that ended up being the Cowboys. Making his club debut in 2004, it was unfortunately not one to remember after he broke his leg in the early minutes of the game and was ruled out for the season. In 2005, Scott played just 3 games for the first-grade side in total, instead spending most of the season in the QLD Cup.
2006 saw Scott enjoy a longer stint in the side as he played in 22 games and played in his maiden Origin game for Queensland. He was a key figure in the side’s 2007 charge towards the finals and was slowly establishing himself as an elite prop.
2008 was an injury-affected year for Scott. He played just the first three games of the season and the three final games of the season. Overcoming the injury concerns in 2009, Scott was back to his best and regained a spot in the Queensland side for Origin. He also played for the Prime Minister’s XIII side that year.
2010 saw Scott’s profile increase after he won both the Cowboys Player of the Year Award and the Players’ Player of the Year Award. The Cowboys finished 15th, however, in a disappointing season but Scott enjoyed individual success with his awards and again gaining selection for Queensland. 2011 saw him appointed as co-captain of the side along with Thurston before his good form continued that resulted in him being named Dally M Prop of the Year. Scott continued to play for Queensland and helped the Cowboys make the finals.
Scott won a man-of-the-match award whilst playing for Australia in 2012 and was a part of QLD’s side yet again, helping them to eight straight series victories by the end of 2013. After a monumental performance that saw him record 220 running metres as a prop, Scott was rewarded with a rare score of 10 by Rugby League Week, a year many regard as the best of his career.
2015 was a year to remember for Scott as he continued to perform consistently, ultimately helping his side to their maiden NRL premiership. To cap things off, he was named captain of the year at the Dally M’s.

9. Aaron Payne – A Townsville local, playing for the Cowboys was always on the cards for Payne as his career progressed. Making his debut in 2002, he quickly cemented a spot as the leading hooker for the club up until his retirement in 2012. In 2006 and 2008, he was named the Cowboys Player of the Year, also winning Player’s Player of the Year and Clubperson of the Year in 2008.
For much of his later days at the club, he was a vice captain and played in his 200th career game for the club during the 2011 season. Many regarded him as the glue that held the Cowboys side together, complementing Thurston perfectly during their time together at the Cowboys.
His sole representative honour came in 2012 when he was named in the NRL All-Stars squad. After 10 years with the club, Payne retired in 2012.

10. Shane Tronc – Debuting for the Cowboys in 2004, Tronc played with the club for six seasons and played in 125 games as a result. In just his second year with the club, the powerful forward played in the grand final (2005). A hard-working prop, Tronc suffered a knee injury that ruled him out of the 2007 season. He eventually departed the Cowboys and went on to join Super League side, Wakefield and then returned to the NRL with the Brisbane Broncos. He was forced to retire in 2011 due to a neck injury.

11. Glenn Morrison – A Terrigal junior, Morrison had stints at both the Balmain Tigers and North Sydney Bears before joining the Cowboys in 2000. A successful spell with the club and consistent form saw Morrison named as the Cowboys Player of the Year in 2001, a season that saw him score 13 tries in 23 games, a good return for a forward. He carried that form into 2002 where he played 15 games, scoring 60 points in the process (15 tries).
His stint at the Cowboys was regarded as one of his best in his career and he was at the club until the 2004 season before he made the move to the Parramatta Eels, before enjoying stints in England with Bradford and Wakefield. He also made four appearances for the Country Origin side in 2001, 2003, 2004 and 2005.

12. Gavin Cooper – Hailing from Murgon, Cooper was signed to the Cowboys in 2005 and played in the club’s reserve grade premiership side. 2006 saw him make his debut for the club playing in 18 games before he made the move to the Gold Coast Titans. After limited time on the Gold Coast, he joined Penrith for several seasons.
2011 marked an overhaul for the Cowboys side and Cooper rejoined the club in that season. He played in his 100th NRL game in that year and was named as the Clubman of the Year. 2012 saw him become a mainstay in the back-row and he score 10 tries for the club, the club record for a forward. After another successful season in 2013, he earned his first representative honour after he was picked for the Prime Minister’s XIII.
2014 saw the Auckland Nines begin with Cooper captaining the Cowboys team to victory that year. He was also named in the Team of the Tournament. In 2015, for the first time in his career, Cooper was named in the Queensland Emerging Origin side. In the same year, he again captained the Cowboys at the Nines competition and captained them for the first time in a regular first-grade game.
He was also a key contributor to the Cowboys season that saw them take out their maiden NRL premiership. In 2016, he captained the Cowboys at the Nines for a third time, made his Origin debut for Queensland and again captained the first-grade side.

13. Luke O’Donnell – A talented yet aggressive player, O’Donnell was a player that worked hard and played hard to get the best out of his own game. Playing for the Balmain Tigers and Wests Tigers before joining the Cowboys, his first season with the Townsville club came in 2004.
In just his first year at the club, he won the Cowboys Player of the Year Award. The next year, he played an active role in the Cowboys 2005 season that led to a grand final appearance.
Suffering a severe hamstring injury in 2007, he was ruled out for the remainder of the season and forced to claw his way back for the 2008 season. He copped a 7-week suspension in 2008 for two separate incidents – striking and abusing an official. He won the Cowboys Player of the Year for a second time in 2009.
He was also selected in the City v Country match and for NSW that year. He played in the NRL All-Stars game in his final year and happened to be sent off twice during his Cowboys career.

14. John Buttigieg – The hulking prop made his Cowboys debut in 1995 and spent his entire club career with the Cowboys. Playing in a total of 101 games for the club over 9 seasons, he won the Players’ Player Award in 1999. He also made three appearances for Queensland across the 2002-03 seasons.

15. Paul Rauhihi – Enjoying a small 3-year stint with the Cowboys, in that short time, Rauhihi both made an impact and became a favourite. Prior to that, he had played for both the Newcastle Knights and the Canterbury Bulldogs.
In 2003, he won the club’s Player of the Year Award after a solid individual season. The following year, he was captain for a while after Paul Bowman was injured and he captained again in 2005 when Travis Norton was injured.
2005 proved to the final year for Rauhihi at the club but he performed well individually as did the team, before they eventually lost in the grand final. In the end, he played in a total of 72 games for the club.

16. Mark Shipway – A versatile centre and back-rower, Shipway’s professional debut for the Cowboys came in 1997. An under-rated player during those years, he worked hard and forged a reputation as an honest toiler that impressed. In total, across his time at the club, he played in 91 NRL games and scored 9 tries in the process.
At the end of the 2001 season, he departed and played for the Northern Eagles and the Manly Sea Eagles, before going on to play for the Salford Devils.

17. Kyle Warren – A talented utility, Warren’s versatility saw him cover numerous positions during his time at the Cowboys. Over the course of his club career, he played fullback, centre, wing, front row, back row and lock, but he performed well no matter where he played.
His versatility is a testament to his approach to the game, playing where required. He enjoyed five seasons with the club, starting in the 1997 Super League season before finishing up in the 2001 season.
Across those 5 seasons, he played 87 games and scored 26 tries.

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