Footy and a XXXX on a grassy hill with a Townsville breeze – does it get any more Queensland than that?
When the North Queensland Cowboys host the Brisbane Broncos in the upcoming XXXX Derby at 1300SMILES Stadium, it will be the 300th first grade game played there – and, with a shiny new stadium in the works, it’s set to be one of the last.
Soon enough, we’ll be serving up the first XXXX at the Cowboys’ new stables, but we’ll do it with cracking memories of their historical home.
Fans have been spreading out over the hill, taking a swig of the state’s top drop and cheering on the home side since they first ran out there, on an autumn night in ’95.
The North finally had its very own team, a top-notch field to match, and it brought North Queensland together like nothing else could.
After 25 seasons of the Cowboys doing the North proud, it’s almost time to call last drinks – but first, here’s to some of our favourite moments from this special patch of turf.
The whip cracks on opening night
When the Cowboys got the green light to play in the 1995 season, it lit the fuse for an almighty opening night – and when the 11th of March finally rolled around, there were fireworks.
With the new franchise facing up to a strong Bulldogs side in their first game, it was always a tough ask – and conditions were just as tough off the field. With the Big Wet paying Townsville a visit the night before, a 23,000-strong crowd had to trudge through the mud to get to their seats, while the Stadium lights almost send the neighbours into blackout.
A couple of early send-offs set the first-up clash alight and by full-time, the muddy locals had watched their side go down 32-16. But they officially had a team to be proud of, a home ground to call their own, and a sure-fire reason to knock back a XXXX.
Mango Magic stuns Bunnies
Matt Bowen produced too many pieces of brilliance to count over his 13-year NRL career, and it’s not easy to narrow down one game from the Cowboys’ greatest-ever fullback. We couldn’t go past one Saturday night in 2003, when Bowen notched up his first career hat-trick and helped demolish the Rabbitohs.
Scoring three of the Cowboys’ 10 tries, the little legend from Far North Queensland had a field day in the 60-8 win. At 21 years of age, the man nicknamed ‘Mango’ would soon become one of Rugby League’s best, forming a deadly combination alongside Johnathan Thurston – and earning a few Milton Mangoes of his own along the way.
Little brother beats big brother
The XXXX Derby is a Queensland legend, and these days it’s just about the closest rivalry you can get in Aussie sport. Cowboys fans from the early days remember it wasn’t always the case.
When the two teams came together for the first time in Townsville in ’95, the Cowboys had the support of another bumper crowd, but ultimately fell to the ‘big brother’ from down south.
It started a trend they couldn’t shake quickly; despite plenty of close games, North Queensland couldn’t beat Brisbane for the best part of a decade. That all changed one night in 2004.
It was all set up perfectly: in their first-ever finals series, the Cowboys would host the Broncos in a do-or-die derby, to be spoken about in Queensland pubs for years to come. It also set up a homecoming for Townsville-raised Broncos legend Gorden Tallis, who was set to retire.
A tough 80 minutes later, the Cowboys had finally done it – 10-0, and a long-awaited win over their Queensland rivals.
JT kick starts the Cowboys
Every fan remembers the Cowboys’ history-making effort to win their first premiership in 2015, but they were long odds to get there after the season’s first three games.
Staring down the barrel of four straight defeats on a quiet Monday night, they’d need a miracle to defeat the red-hot Melbourne Storm – and the Cowboys’ favourite son delivered.
Down 16-4 at half-time, North Queensland’s were in trouble again, but a Thurston masterclass kept his side within striking distance.
A late Cowboys try brought scores to 17-14 with two minutes left, before Thurston’s high-pressure sideline conversion and last-minute field goal drew scores level. A second flawless field goal iced the game in extra time, the locals raising a GOLD to the unofficial King of North Queensland.
After a slow start to the season, the 18-17 victory kicked off 11-straight wins for the Cowboys, setting them up to lift the trophy later that year.
Sharks towelled up in Townsville
By September 2015, the Cowboys were on a roll – but two weeks before the decider they gave a commanding display in their last showing on home turf.
Having gone down to Brisbane in a nail-biter, the Cowboys’ second finals chance came in Townsville against the Sharks, where they shocked everyone in a massive home-town win. A double for Michael Morgan and another classic game from Thurston helped the side to a 39-0 shutout of Cronulla, a fortnight before they would get the silverware in Sydney.
15,000 Smiles at premiership party
1300SMILES Stadium became a very happy hunting ground for the Cowboys in 2015 – and there were smiles all ’round at the team’s civic reception after the grand final win.
More than 15,000 fans packed onto the field to welcome their heroes back from Sydney, after thousands more crammed into Townsville Airport to catch a glimpse of the trophy. The players got the keys to the city and shared a well-earned XXXX or two with the elated crowd.
In Thurston’s grand final speech the night before, he’d called for a new Townsville stadium – and the legendary playmaker is about to get his wish. Before the dust settles on the old ground, Cowboys fans will head to the new one, where plenty more memories will be made with a XXXX in hand.