Teenage firebrand Tom Gilbert will make his NRL debut off the North Queensland bench against the Sharks on Saturday night after a perfect apprenticeship.
The 19-year-old forward, who has been likened in impact and style to Josh McGuire and Anthony Watmough, played 24 games for the Townsville Blackhawks in the Intrust Super Cup last year, averaging 140 metres and 30 tackles per game.
His consistency and impact earned him the competitition’s rookie of the year and lock of the year awards. He was also the Townsville Blackhawks player of the year.
Last year NRL.com asked Intrust Super Cup coaches to name one player in their squad who they tipped to succeed in the NRL. Blackhawks coach Aaron Payne nominated Gilbert and said it was a matter of "when, not if" he took the next step, before adding "he is aggressive and competes all the time like Josh McGuire".
Gilbert has been mentored by Payne and former Cowboys forward Glenn Hall. He looks up to workhorse NRL forwards McGuire and Dale Finucane because of their ability to play big minutes and make every minute count.
The Proserpine-born forward is signed to the Cowboys until the end of 2022 and took a massive step forward during the 2018 season when he heeded some advice from coach Paul Green.
Gilbert, who is now weighs 96kg, was seven kilos lighter at the time and was told to bulk up to be ready to compete against men in last year's Intrust Super Cup.
Cowboys v Sharks - Round 4
It was a decision that paid enormous dividends.
QRL competitions manager David Maiden, a member of the inaugural Cowboys squad in 1995 and the Northern Pride's 2010 premiership-winning Intrust Super Cup coach, said the ultra-competitive Gilbert had made the most of a classic rugby league pathway.
"Tom plays like Anthony Watmough did in the way he pushes the boundaries and gets under an opponent's skin, while also having a really good work ethic,” Maiden told NRL.com.
"Last year he was learning to curb that aggression and point it in the right direction and he has got better at it.
"He is no nonsense, no frills. He gets the job done. He has worked hard for his NRL debut.
"Tom epitomises what the Intrust Super Cup competition is about because it is a great breeding ground in terms of learning the demands and consistency that is required at the next level.
"Certainly playing against men last year for the entire season has put Tom in good stead."
Cowboys centre Esan Marsters lived with Gilbert for several weeks when he moved to Townsville and said he was a serous young man who had deserved his chance.
"Everything he does is professional so I am happy for him that he has got his debut. He earned that with the way he trained in the off-season and I know he is going to play really well," Marsters said.