Scintillating fullback Matt Bowen formed a mighty partnership with Johnathan Thurston again in 2012
Photo: Getty Images
The Cowboys entered the 2012 season with an air of expectation after a solid 2011, finishing seventh on the ladder despite a knee injury to superstar playmaker Johnathan Thurston.
With a fully fit JT at halfback, a livewire No.1 in Matt Bowen, the addition of former Wests Tigers No.7 Robert Lui and some of the hottest young prospects in rugby league, there was a feeling in Townsville that the Cowboys might just pinch a top-four finish.
Of course, we all know how the Lui situation ended up, and an inconsistent start to the season left North Queensland with an uphill climb.
Then, a huge blow - Tariq Sims broke both bones in his left leg in a round 11 win over Penrith, robbing the Cowboys of one of their brightest young talents.
Round 2: Brisbane 26-28 North Queensland
In the opening round of the season the Cowboys were simply horrible, offering home fans nothing to cheer about in an 18-0 loss to the Titans.
In week two they travelled south and toppled the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium. The first try of the Cowboys' year came from the least likely source: Dallas Johnson. The dour lock slid over untouched to put his side ahead after five minutes, and they led 16-8 at half-time.
However Brisbane poured on the pressure in the second half, and when Ben Te'o planted the ball in the 69th minute the home team were ahead.
Matt Bowen scrambled 20m from the scrumbase for a 78th minute try to tie the scores, and Johnathan Thurston converted for the win.
On his 30th birthday, Bowen scored two tries but made four errors. Matt Scott was the best forward on the field, ably assisted by James Tamou.
Round 7: Roosters 12-50 North Queensland
After three away wins and three home losses the Cowboys needed to stay on the positive side of the ledger. They achieved this with another away win, a demolition of the once-mighty Roosters at TIO Stadium in Darwin. In 33-degree heat the Cowboys scored nine tries to two. Thurston humbled State of Origin rival Mitchell Pearce with a brilliant display of tactical kicking and short- and long-passing. He had four try assists and zero errors compared to Pearce's zero try assists and three errors. Nine Cowboys ran for more than 100m; no Roosters forward ran even 90m. North Queensland completed 30 sets to 19. They looked awesome in attack and stubborn in defence, and it seemed likely that no rival would invite them to play in the Darwin heat again for a long, long time.
Round 13: Gold Coast 28-12 North Queensland
The Cowboys improved their season record to 7-4 before a tough loss to the Tigers at Campbelltown. The following week they travelled to face the hapless Titans, their conquerors in the opening round – and lost to them again. This was a nasty defeat for the Cowboys and the Titans' first home win since round 24, 2011. In the first 10 minutes the Titans were forced into four line drop-outs and made an astonishing 50 tackles to North Queensland's one – all without conceding a point. Two tries before half-time and two more afterwards took Gold Coast to a commanding 22-0 lead. The Cowboys scored two consolation tries in the final 10 minutes but the match was long gone. Tamou and Scott made big metres but to no avail. "Anyone who watched that game could see we were comprehensively outplayed," coach Neil Henry said afterwards. "We were out-defended by a better side on the night. We haven't got any excuses."
Round 19: Melbourne 16-20 North Queensland
The longest road-trip in the NRL resulted in a confidence-boosting win to North Queensland over a side that had spent most of the season on top of the ladder. Melbourne scored first through Matt Duffie but Kane Linnett squared the ledger after 18 minutes. When Gareth Widdop put his team ahead in the second half, Brent Tate replied for the Cowboys three minutes later. Linnett's second put the visitors ahead, where they remained. Johnson made 51 tackles and Gavin Cooper 50. The back five each ran for well over 100m, with Bowen going 200m. Thurston laid on the two Linnett tries and kicked superbly, leading his side to the Cowboys' first win in Melbourne since 2001.
Elimination final: North Queensland 35-16 Brisbane
The Cowboys finished the regular season with four straight wins and plenty of momentum. This carried over into the first week of the finals, in which they easily accounted for 'big brother' Brisbane. North Queensland completed 36 sets to Brisbane's 22, and only made five errors compared to the visitors' 16. Once again the big props laid the foundation, with Scott running an amazing 212m and Tamou 169m, augmented with 18 tackles apiece. Rookie halfback Michael Morgan had a dream finals debut with three classy tries. The best came when he chased a Bowen kick and stuck his right hand out for a superb take, sashayed past the full-back and scored. Bowen opened the scoring in the fifth minute, and two Morgan tries took the score to 18-0 at the break. The match highlight came midway through the second half when Bowen gathered a kick 12m from his own line and burned past four Broncos before offloading to Brent Tate, who beat his man on the outside for a superb try. The Broncos scored a couple of consolation four-pointers but the home side was always in control.
Semi final: Manly 22-12 North Queensland
Controversy raged as the Cowboys were knocked out of the finals race. Two contentious video referee decisions, both resulting in benefit of the doubt tries to the Sea-Eagles, marred a close game. North Queensland looked disjointed and even timid for the first half hour of this sudden-death clash and Manly capitalised with early tries to Michael Oldfield and Brett Stewart. On the 30-minute mark the Cowboys again looked stymied in attack when Bowen offered the ball to a flat-footed Tamou, but the prop proceeded to surge past four Manly defenders and score, which meant the gap at half-time was only six points. The Cowboys looked the stronger team on resumption but Manly took control via a contentious try given to Jorge Taufua after an apparent double-movement, then the shock awarding of a try to Oldfield after Kieran Foran looked to have knocked on. Add this to Taufua not being called for grounding the ball in his own in-goal and the Queenslanders had every right to feel aggrieved. Tamou ran 226m, Scott ran 184m and Dallas Johnson made 44 tackles but Bowen had a poor night and Graham, Linnett and Cooper were all quiet. Thurston described himself as "gutted" after the game. "I can sit here and say we had opportunities to win the game, but those decisions ... honestly, I can't justify them."
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