It’s taken five long years of frustration, disappointment and rebuilding, but the North Queensland Cowboys are back in the NRL finals for the first time since 2017.

Though it ended in a grand final appearance, that campaign was filled with struggles and disbelief as the team overcame injury after injury, losing co-captains Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott to shoulder and ACL injuries respectively by the mid-point of the season.

In the stretch of games leading up to the finals, coach Paul Green was considering asking the NRL for special dispensation. At one point the Cowboys were missing eight of their usual starting side but they refused to say die, defying expectation and limping all the way to a decider that eventually proved too much of a mountain to climb.

Thankfully, regardless of how far they go in this year’s series, they won’t have to overcome so many obstacles in 2022.

“We’re a lot more prepared for this series,” says back-rower Coen Hess, one of the few remaining Cowboys from that 2017 Grand Final.

GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 01: Coen Hess of the Cowboys is tackled during the round 25 NRL match between the Gold Coast Titans and the North Queensland Cowboys at Cbus Super Stadium on September 1, 2018 in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

“In 2017 we barely scraped in. We didn’t think we’d make it, we had to rely on results.

“But we’ve really solidified our position this year, it was a lot more organised this time around. The only issue we had to worry about (in the final rounds) was where we would play.”

Though injuries haven’t been an issue this time around, the Cowboys are still under pressure after losing their grip on second place as well as their last three contests against top eight opponents.

Though the Cowboys have lost just four games since the middle of April, those defeats have come at the hands of Penrith, Cronulla, South Sydney and the Roosters.

But despite the appearance of some cracks in the plan, Hess says nothing is changing after a year that’s delivered plenty of positives.

“It’s business as usual. Everyone knows finals football is a different beast, we’ve already put the season behind us,” Hess told Zero Tackle.

“Obviously we’re very proud of what we’ve achieved this year, but it’s an entirely new ball game now and we’re preparing for a tough contest.”

Roughshod Rookies

Results on the ladder haven’t been the only cause for celebration and optimism in the tropical north, with a number of fringe and youth players stepping up and making a noticeable impact on the team’s fortunes after the disappointment of 2021 – epitomised by the recent news that Scott Drinkwater had signed with the club until 2027, a just reward for his sensational form and commitment to the club.

“We’re not doing anything really different to what we’ve done in the past, but I think it’s the age of the group (that’s having an impact),” Hess said.

“In the past it’s been a bit more spread out (the age and experience), but now we’ve got a core group of good young talent.

“They’ve played a bit of footy with – and against – each other coming through the grades, and that’s helped them become more familiar with each other.”

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 14: Jeremiah Nanai of the Cowboys scores a try during the round 22 NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Wests Tigers at QCB Stadium, on August 14, 2021, in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

While Drinkwater, Tom Dearden and a number of other young Cowboys have all made an observable impact, few have been quite so memorable as that of Jeremiah Nanai.

Hess played a similar role for the team during their last finals charge as a hard-running, try-scoring young back-rower, and he believes the lead candidate for this year’s Rookie of the Year award can be a huge asset in the NRL Finals.

Nanai has been in sensational form in his debut season, scoring 18 tries in just 25 appearances and earning selection to Billy Slater’s victorious Queensland team - and he's only going to get better.

“He’s a confident kid, it’s great to see,” said Hess.

“The club had big wraps on him coming through the ranks. He’s surprised us all – but he’s probably surprised himself as well as to how fast he’s burst onto the scene and how much of an impact he’s having.

“He’s a force to be reckoned with and it’s great to see. You need people like that in your team, who can score a try out of nothing – especially in the finals.”

Hive Mind and a Half

For all the advantages that a young team provides, few of the breakout campaigns currently being enjoyed in Townsville would likely be possible without the addition of premiership-winner and former Shark Chad Townsend.

Though he rarely attracts the headlines of the game’s more renowned No.7’s, Hess says the team’s leader is “right up there” with some of the best halfbacks the game has seen.

“He’s playing a similar role as JT (Johnathan Thurston) used to do for us. He’s like having an on-field coach and he makes everyone’s jobs a lot easier, he’s always talking.

“My role can get pretty tough and physical in the middle, but Chad is everyone’s eyes and ears – and brain – out there on the field. He tells us what to do and we react off that.”

While Townsend might be the team’s brain on the field, they’ve also got one in the coaches box. Todd Payten is the lead candidate for the Dally M Coach of the Year award after taking the Cowboys from 15th to the finals in the space of two years.

North Queensland Cowboys Scrimmage and Fan Day In Ayr
AYR, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 13: Cowboys coach Todd Payten looks on during a North Queensland Cowboys Scrimmage game against the Townsville Blackhawks at Rugby Park on February 13, 2021 in Ayr, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

According to Hess it was a massive undertaking, but Payten has proved he’s the right man for the job.

“He gave everyone a call. I had him as an under-20s coach and assistant for a while,” Hess said.

“He didn’t talk much to me, let me know he got the job and that he was looking forward to working with me again. That gave me much more confidence.

“He’s had to throw out the old playbook and bring in an entirely new one. He’s basically re-wired all of our brains and changed the way we’ve done things. He made us play the way he wanted us to – and it’s paying dividends now.”

The Burden of History

It’s been a remarkable year for the Cowboys, regardless of what happens next. Though the weight of history is against them this weekend, Hess says the younger group (with some former Sharks included) won’t feel the burden of any statistical hoodoos.

The Cowboys have lost their last eight meetings with the Sharks in a run stretching back to 2018 - a run that was regularly assisted by current Cowboys Chad Townsend and Valentine Holmes.

The Sharks are also in impeccable form, with 11 wins from their last 12 outings - but as the old saying goes, the finals are an entirely different beast.

“It helps that we’ve got a young group. Only guys like Jason (Taumalolo) have been around long enough (to be aware). I don’t think any of the young kids would even remember. We’re just focussed on the game.”

The last three times the Sharks and Cowboys have met in the finals, whoever wins has gone on to make the grand final.

The Qualifying Final will be held at Cronulla's PointsBet Stadium on Saturday, September 10. Kick-off is at 7.50pm.