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A 'derby' built on goodwill - for now

Date

Another elimination final is just the tonic to add some gravitas to Brisbane's curious long-distance relationship with the North Queensland Cowboys, writes Phil Lutton.

Cowboys vs Broncos: Is the big brother-little brother rivalry about to get serious?

Cowboys vs Broncos: Is the big brother-little brother rivalry about to get serious? Photo: Brendan Esposito

Not long after the cards had fallen in the final round of NRL fixtures, the hype began its steady climb towards kick-off. A Broncos win against Penrith and a cascade of results conspired to book them a date with the Cowboys in Townsville for week one of the play-offs.

Before you could say "heated rivalry", Jonathan Thurston was telling the game's official website this "local derby" was a "promoter's dream". Apart from a fairly generous definition of 'local', Thurston is right. The angles are perfect for pre-packaged promotional purposes and the NRL and broadcasters haven't missed a beat.

But Brisbane's relationship with the Cowboys is anything but straightforward. It's a derby, yes, but in its infancy that was only by default. Until the Titans arrived in 2007, the Cowboys were the only other show in the Sunshine State, even if there is that pesky 1357-kilometre drive for return matches.

Geography and the relative modernity of both teams dictates this can never be a Collingwood-Carlton type carnival of detestation, where fanatical fans of one would be happy for the fanatical fans of the other never to witness another victory in their lifetime. In that scenario, there is no room for pity and none would be expected.

The Broncos did get a running start. By the time the Cowboys made their debut in the ARL in 1995, two premierships resided at Red Hill. One of the more difficult tasks for early Cowboys administrators was to convince north Queenslanders to support the new club instead of the Broncos. Remnants of that good will towards Brisbane remain embedded in Cowboy country, serving to soften the edge between the sides even when a make-or-break game appears on the horizon.

From Brisbane's perspective, the Cowboys were more of a curiosity than a danger when they first arrived on the scene. The Broncos would finish third in 1995, beaten in the finals by eventual premiers the Bulldogs. The Cowboys, with just two wins, came dead last. Apart from what you could only assume were a few gags at their expense, it's unlikely the Cowboys featured heavily in Brisbane's dressing room conversation.

The overall record reflects Brisbane's dominance of the north-south stoush. The teams have met 33 times, with Brisbane better on 24 occasions to go with a pair of draws. Even in the relative safety of Townsville, the Cowboys have struggled to take care of business, losing 15 of their 19 attempts against the Broncos in front of friendly fans.

In all of those meetings, while there has been pride as stake, rarely has there been anything season-defining on the line. The traditional round one fixture at Suncorp Stadium is a wonderful spectacle, but a loss doesn't condemn the losers to a campaign of misery.

Only once before have the Cowboys and Broncos suited up with so much on the line. In 2004, in what would prove to be the final game in the career of Gorden Tallis, the Broncos travelled to Townsville and lost an elimination semi-final 10-0. For all of Brisbane's bullying of their northern cousins, it is the Cowboys that have the most valuable victory in their keeping.

"If you lose round one, you've got a whole season of games to make it up. These games are do-or-die. At some stage during the year, you get a point where you can't lose. You're both at that point now. I think that will make this game as special as the one back in 2004," said Cowboys football manager Peter Parr.

"It's been a long time since we've been able to play each other in a final's game. That one was elimination. So's this one. That just adds to the theatre. The loser is finished."

Parr has seen a great deal through his tenure with the Cowboys across a number of roles. The club has been a sideshow at times, particularly in its formative years, but now boasts genuine superstars in players like Thurston and Matt Bowen and a grand final appearance in 2005. They will be favourites to beat Brisbane and if they do, would tip them out of the finals for the second time in as many attempts.

Parr said it is these sort of wins that add meat to the bones in the development of a true derby, the kind laced with feeling and history and fire and angst and heartache. Parr said it would only serve to enshrine this as the premier intrastate contest, even if the Titans are just an hour away from Brisbane's home base.

"While the Gold Coast has been great for the NRL and it's been terrific to have a third Queensland team, I think most people would agree would agree it's between us and the Broncos, north verses south if you like. I think that's been really enhanced by the round one kick-off, where we start the season in front of 50,000 every year," Parr said.

"I still think that this game is something the whole state has an interest in. It's a game the whole state will look forward to watching."

The dynamic has altered over the years from the other side of the fence, as well. Petero Civoniceva, the great Brisbane forward, said the early exchanges between the clubs were characterised by the big brother against little brother scenario, in which the big brother would usually succeed in rubbing the overmatched sibling's nose in the dirt.

For now at least, the balance of power has edged toward the tropics. Civoniceva said the impressive evolution of the Cowboys may be partly as a result of North Queensland's contribution to the wider NRL playing pool and a feeling that their region is one of the true heartlands of league.

"I guess it's big brother playing little brother, or back in the day that's always how it was put out there. For me, it's always been a great traditional battle. The fact north Queenslanders have got such a proud history within rugby league – there's always a few north Queenslanders in the representative sides – they feel like they are the number one area," Civoniceva said.

"Early on, the Cowboys at times struggled. But if you look at how the club has grown and the amount of support they get and the star-studded side they have, everyone up there is very proud of that. Maybe back in the day there was that feeling of being over-awed going up against the Broncos. But not any more."

Brisbane lock Corey Parker remembers the 2004 semi-final well. It was the first time the Cowboys had ever beaten Brisbane and, to rub it in, they kept a clean sheet, much to the delight of delirious fans of a side that until that finals series, hadn't featured once on the Channel Nine live coverage.

Parker doesn't recall the trip north as heading behind enemy lines, as is the case in Origin when the locals tend to bristle the moment the Blues or Maroons poke a toe across the border. He remembers Townsville buzzing with energy in what was, at that point, the biggest rugby league event the locals had ever witnessed.

"I remember the hype. Two Queensland sides – I just remember turning up in Townsville at the same hotel we'll go to on Saturday night. There was just a buzz in the air," Parker said.

"Prior to that, there had been no semi-final between the two Queensland sides. I expect this to be something similar. There will be a really big buzz going on in Townsville at the moment."

Parker understands the marketing potential of the match but said there was no intense rivalry between the clubs outside of fixtures that are often brutal but rarely ill-tempered. And, as Civoniceva said, Queenslanders aren't inclined to turn on their own.

"Being the two Queensland sides in the semi-finals series, I guess it's a marketing dream. It's a big occasion up there. It should be good," Parker said.

"As a rivalry, aside from the whole big brother thing, they're just another footy side. They mightn't look at us the same way."

Parr said a degree of collegiality remained between the clubs and their players, many of whom have become close friends through time in Queensland or Australian squads. For 12 years, the clubs represented the top and bottom of the state against the rest of the NRL, while the Broncos continued to provide a statistical benchmark to which the Cowboys still aspire.

"When you call it a rivalry, there's no doubt that the Broncos are our most-respected opponent. They've won six premierships. We haven't won any. There's a long way to go before we can claim any sort of bragging rights. We're proud over the past eight or nine years we've been able to compete really well," Parr said.

"It's not like either stadium is packed with fans of one team. I can't speak for the Broncos but the rivalry isn't built on dislike or hatred. It's built on our respect for them and the challenge for us (in our first) 10 or 11 years was to try and build up our club. We've used them as a benchmark, nearly as a role model."

If the respect from either end is genuine, than so is the desire to ensure their seasons don't end on Saturday night. Townsville may be a premiership-free zone, but if they manage to end a Brisbane season for the second time, expect this rivalry to grow new legs.

2 comments

  • Great piece Phil. Having been in Townsville during that 2004 final I have fond memories of the week leading up to the game. It was originally meant to be played in Sydney but the Broncos agreed it should be played in North Queensland and even though we didn't win it was undoubtedly the right decision. The atmosphere in Townsville during semi-final week was incredible - the whole region was agog. I remember lining up from 6am to get game tickets (it sold out in three hours) and seeing a queue of around 200 metres for tickets to the footy show (sold out in under two hours). There was just a buzz everywhere you went.

    I agree this is a different type of rivalry. There's no underlying hatred for each other like those fueds we see in the AFL, just a healthy respect for the opposition. It was evident in 2004 when the whole stadium gave Tallis a standing ovation as he left the field in his last game and it will be on display this Saturday night regardless of who wins and loses.

    Commenter
    Stephen
    Location
    Bris
    Date and time
    September 05, 2012, 9:42AM
    • I'm a Broncos fan, but also love the Cowboys style of play, and they are (mostly) Queenslanders too. I think most Qld Broncos fans have Cowboys as their 2nd team, and Titans or Storm (Qld connection) as their 3rd/4th teams to follow. I'm a huge fan of JT & Matt Bowen, Scotty, Tater, Graham etc and would love to see them be successful, not necessarily at the expense of my Broncs, but it'd be great to see a Qld team there on GF day.

      Commenter
      All Qld
      Location
      Bris
      Date and time
      September 05, 2012, 4:04PM
      Comments are now closed

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      SYD vs BRI 00:00AS
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      MEL vs NEW 00:00AAMI
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      NEW vs CBY 00:00HS
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      MAN vs SYD 00:00BO
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      GCT vs STG 00:00Cbus Super Stadium
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      BRI vs MEL 00:00SUN
      CBY vs NZW 00:00ANZ
      NQL vs GCT 00:001300 Smiles Stadium
      STG vs WST 00:00ANZ
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