The Sunday Mail (Queensland)

GRAND JOURNEY

- GRANTLEE KIEZA

W AY TO ALL THE WHO RODE WESTS

THE WBOYS E T O G THE CO HURDL CENTR

E, WHO AMON FINAL OF AN WAS FALLIN - EXAMP

G AT THE TACKL ING LE BOWM TOUGH PERFE CT

ATELY G, E UNIT AGO, PAUL ULTIM UNNIN , R ‘THE RMANC

AS PERFO YEARS FINAL HARD- IBED

A DESCR WBOYS TEN GRAND AS ’ HIGH- THE NRL YEARS CO

12 TT ONCE SPENT BENNE THE . HE UP TIGERS WAYNE HEADS

COACH NOW SLAND AN QUEEN BOWM

GE’. COURA N MAROO THE Cowboys are riding high with a real shot at this year’s premiershi­p. But things were much tougher when the club kicked off 20 years ago. You were there from the start? It was very different back then. After training, the playing group would pitch in to lay turf on the hill around the ground before the start of the season ... We all had jobs, so football was a parttime sport. I had been at the Uni of Queensland doing human movement but I deferred and worked in a sports store in Townsville to pay the bills. The Cowboys’ debut game against the Bulldogs in 1995 was a bit rough and ready. The jerseys only arrived on the day of the game and Kerry Boustead, the CEO, had to run around putting paper in the portable toilets just before kick-off. It was all very last minute. We had a skeleton staff and it was all hands on deck. After we’d laid turf around the ground, it rained and there was a worry that the turf would go rolling down the hill. There were a lot of things Kerry had to get done above and beyond what a CEO would normally do. But we had a real community spirit. You started in ’95 but it took a while to make the top side? My first-grade debut was against Souths in Round 16. I played reserve grade prior to that, which was a really good grounding we don’t have today. The under-20s today is very different. Reserve grade was a

SUNDAY SESSION good education because guys like Laurie Spina played reserve games as well and you learned a lot playing alongside them. It was a great thing for North Queensland to have its own team. Before then players had to move at least 1200km to Brisbane or beyond to play at the top level. That first year in ’95 is one of the highlights of my career. North Queensland was starved of elite level football for so long but it’s always been a strong region for rugby league. For Townsville and North Queensland to have its own side was a great boost for the whole region. Every town around us was on board. You ended up with the wooden spoon in the first year, two wins and 20 losses. We didn’t have much success on the field but the atmosphere on the ground and in the community was unbelievab­le. We probably had the biggest crowds we’ve ever had, an average of around 20,000. This year you had won nine of 11 away games entering this weekend, an astonishin­g tally. What’s the difference? Our away record was a bit of an Achilles’ heel. I know Peter Burge, the elite performanc­e manager at Richmond AFL Club, who was a long jumper for Australia from Townsville. Richmond have to travel to Perth a bit and I’ve been picking their brains about changing schedules ... In the past we would typically do a 45-minute to one-hour session on the day we’d travel, so players would have to start at 8.30am. The guys would have to rush to their airport for a three-hour flight to Sydney. Consequent­ly they’d be a bit worn out ... We shifted our day off to three days before the game and we do our final main session two days out from the game with a light 25-minute workout before we travel. It has made a huge difference. You’re famously a North Queensland stalwart but you were born in Newcastle. My father’s a vet. He studied at Queensland Uni as well. He got locum work in Newcastle and we had about 12 months down there with mum and my sister, who was born in Brisbane. I don’t have any memory of Newcastle. My family moved to Proserpine straight after that and have been there ever since. You played 203 games, for a long time the club record. Matty Bowen and a few guys have gone past now, but I’m very proud I played so many games here. I never really contemplat­ed going anywhere else. My family have had season tickets from day one. My wife’s from North Queensland, and her family too. In 2003 you suffered a bad knee injury on the new Suncorp Stadium sandpit. But you wouldn’t come off. Wayne Bennett said If we were looking for a perfect example of Maroon courage, it was you. You could hardly walk but kept throwing yourself into tackles. I didn’t really stay on that long but I just had to do my best. I couldn’t get my position right to make a tackle because I couldn’t move too well. Then because I couldn’t get into the right position, I took a heavy knock to the head and was taken off. The Cowboys’ first win over the Broncos came in Townsville in the 2004 semifinals. It was the end of Gorden Tallis’s career. We won 10-0. We’d come close against the Broncos a few times but that was a highlight in a great year. We had qualified for the semis for the first time by beating the Bulldogs and the reception we got at the airport was tremendous. We played the Broncos in the second week of finals and had a full house. The Broncos always had a huge support base in the north but on this night the tide turned significan­tly and we had all the support. It was a great win. How do you rate your career? I’m proud of the fact I played more than 200 games for the Cowboys and a dozen Origin matches for Queensland, a dozen more than I thought I would ever play. I’m proud I was able to play my whole career at one club and keep my family close. My last home game (in 2007) was also my 200th game, then we also had two home finals. So I ended up getting three magnificen­t sendoffs in front of my home crowd. Unfortunat­ely though, I didn’t achieve the ultimate success. Losing that 2005 grand final to Wests still hurts? The Tigers scored after you threw a dodgy pass early. Unfortunat­ely we didn’t get the job done. That’s obviously a regret but I don’t have many. We didn’t play our best football that day and I try not to think about that game too much. It was a wonderful time. Muzz enjoyed a beer and was great company. Some of the best memories I have in football are celebratin­g a victory with mates and that’s something he always encouraged. Muzz built terrific camaraderi­e. He felt that we worked hard and we needed to enjoy our success. Young North Queensland­ers such as Matt Bowen, Aaron Payne, Travis Norton and Ash Graham rose to the top under him. Paul Green, the current coach, has a similar philosophy. Like Muzz he played at the top level and wants his players to enjoy their success. You were one of the victims when John Hopoate went on his infamous on-field prostate inspection­s. But you worked side by side with him this year with the Tongan team against Samoa. Kristian Woolf, who had worked at the Cowboys with our under20s, was the Tongan coach and he recruited me. When he told me Hoppa was also on the staff, I said that the players didn’t need the distractio­n that might come with both us on the team. But we worked together well. Hoppa’s action all those years ago was the elephant in the room. But I was impressed with the way he called on players to be proud of their Tongan heritage and perform their version of the haka. I saw a different side of him.

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 ??  ?? The late, great Graham Murray was the coach then?
The late, great Graham Murray was the coach then?
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