Cowboys prepare for the one that got away
No cherry picking ... Daly Cherry-Evans was overlooked by North Queensland. Photo: Quentin Jones
There was clearly something in the water in Mackay circa 2005. In the same age division, three future NRL players - two of them out-and-out stars - were beginning to make some noise. The problem, it would seem, was that their nearest NRL club, the North Queensland Cowboys, weren't listening.
Among the budding youngsters was a 16-year-old Daly Cherry-Evans - the others were Canterbury's Ben Barba and Canberra's Travis Waddell - who will tonight aim to put an end to the Cowboys' premiership campaign in the first qualifying final at Allianz Stadium. Cherry-Evans, the Sea Eagles halfback, is a key to Manly's hopes of edging a step closer to back-to-back titles but, logically, he really should be striving for glory with North Queensland, not based at North Narrabeen.
The Cowboys, it should be noted in this brief journey through hindsight, are not exactly at sixes and sevens when it comes to playmakers heading into tonight's showdown. They have the best in the game, Johnathan Thurston, playing five-eighth alongside a rising Michael Morgan, who scored a hat-trick of tries last Saturday against Brisbane. But it is worth remembering they could, and probably should, have had Cherry-Evans in their ranks, too.
The 23-year-old's father, Troy, was a Cowboys recruitment and development official in Mackay as Cherry-Evans was beginning to come into his own there in his teenage years. However, the future Dally M Rookie of the Year was still unable to even secure a North Queensland scholarship to the bemusement of his father.
''When they picked their initial academy side (to play a Canberra Raiders development team at under-16 level in Brisbane) they didn't have any of our Mackay players in it,'' said Troy Evans, a former Queensland Cup player who coached his son, Barba and Waddell as juniors.
''When I questioned them they said they'd just picked all their scholarship players. Obviously the likes of Daly, Ben and Travis weren't good enough to make it in the Cowboys' eyes.''
Evans makes it clear he has no gripe whatsoever with North Queensland but was confused by some of the decisions made by their then recruitment chief Peter Jones, a foundation Cowboys player who until recently was the NRL club's football operations manager.
''I don't understand how they handed out scholarships. I think it was more Townsville-biased in the way they picked the kids,'' he said. ''Daly made Queensland under-13s, Ben made Queensland 13s, 14s, 15s, 16s, so I think it's pretty hard to overlook kids like that. As a parent firstly, you don't want to promote your own kid. The kids get their merits by their own actions on the field, which I think blokes like Daly and Ben did but they never got their rewards from the Cowboys. Mackay is a backyard for the Cowboys but they don't sort of back it up with rewarding the kids.''
Jones told the Herald there was no regional favouritism at play, and that Cherry-Evans simply did not stand out at that stage of his junior career. He was, however, on a Parramatta scholarship as a teenager.
''He was there but he was probably a kid that went unnoticed,'' Jones said. ''He was just another footballer, like a lot of them out there. He probably played at that stage under the radar of anyone. But full credit to him. It wasn't an anti-Mackay thing at all. He did well, he left here, he went to Brisbane and then Manly, and he took a while to take off there, so he's done very well.''
The Sea Eagles ultimately pounced on an 18-year-old Cherry-Evans after a stand-out season in the Brisbane under-19s competition, leading to a prevailing school of thought as he soared to an NRL grand final and a Test jumper in 2011 that the Broncos missed the boat on his signature.
Cherry-Evans has not looked back and will not be contemplating what could have been as he combats Thurston and the Cowboys tonight.
''With your kids, as Daly has shown, you go with the opportunities that are given,'' Evans said. ''Like Daly and Ben have shown, you can make the most of them if you're prepared to do the hard work.''