The North Queensland Cowboys were supposed to just be making up the numbers in the finals. They wouldn’t even have made the Top 8 if the Bulldogs hadn’t emerged victorious against the Dragons. Now they stand just one game away from making the unlikeliest of grand final appearances and a lot of that is down to the brilliance of one man. Michael Morgan.
There are only so many words and superlatives located in the dictionary to describe how much I am in awe of the level he has gone to in 2017. Over the course of the last 4 years he has gone from a man who wasn’t even the first choice back-up half to an elite calibre halfback who stands to lead his team towards a dream run to the grand final.
Morgan first came to my attention in 2014. I had taken little interest in other teams besides my own before that year. At the time all I knew of him was he was just a guy with a cool sounding alliterative name that was being considered to take the vacant fullback position after a good showing in a trial match. How little one knew of where he would go from there.
Before that breakout year though, he had to bide his time in reserve grade and deal with personal struggles. He debuted in 2010 as a teenager and made sporadic appearances across the year and following season, playing 8 games in 2 years mostly as cover for the Origin period. In 2012 he earned his first extended run at halfback after Ray Thompson suffered a shoulder injury. He played 13 games that year including a memorable 3-try performance against the Broncos in the semi-finals which was just the beginning of the nightmares Morgan would soon be giving Brisbane.
With a starring role in a finals game and only the infamous ‘Hand of Foran’ preventing any further progress for the Cowboys that year, the future was looking bright for Morgan. However 2013 turned out to be the toughest year of his life.
In that year Alex Elisala, a teammate and very close friend of Morgan’s committed suicide which took a great personal toll on him. He begun to lose interest in Rugby League and went on record stating he had considered giving up on the game after enduring one too many sleepless nights. He managed to persevere through this tough time, spending most of the year playing in the QLD Cup for the Mackay Cutters. He came off the bench as a utility in the Intrust Super Cup grand final and scored a try in their 7 point victory over the Easts Tigers.
Around that time is when he considered giving up on Rugby League. Football suddenly didn’t seem so important and it wasn’t something that he felt like doing anymore. Before making any rash choices on his career, he decided to make a promise to himself. He’d play out the last year of his contract and if he still couldn’t enjoy it by the end, he’d call it a day.
It was from great adversity where Morgan began his rise to the top and it started with the Auckland 9’s in 2014.
Emergence at fullback
The Cowboys ventured to the Auckland 9’s with a solid team that consisted of seasoned first graders like Gavin Cooper and promising youngsters like Kyle Feldt. In the absence of the big guns, it gave a player like Morgan an opportunity to get some game time with the team in a different format and put himself in the good books of the coach for the season ahead.
Whilst not a standout team on paper, it was the likes of Morgan combined with the experience and youth of his teammates who helped take an unfancied Cowboys team all the way to the final. They emerged victorious as the inaugural winners of the Nines and took home the Cowboys first trophy.
It was a good launching pad from where he would begin his rise to prominence. When first choice fullback and key signing Lachlan Coote was ruled out for the rest of the year with an ACL injury, coach Paul Green was delivered a massive selection headache before he had coached a game of first grade.
With the advantage of trial matches yet to be played, it gave him room to experiment and find a replacement. In a stroke of what turned out to be pure genius, Green decided to test out Morgan in the 1 jersey and he liked what he saw. From memory he played about 20 minutes there in one trial match and given an entire half in the role for their final trial. In that hour, he convinced Green he was the man to take over at fullback.
So began the meteoric rise of Michael Morgan.
In his first NRL game at the back, he found himself chasing down Reece Robinson on an intercept pass even managing to catch up to him as he got to the line. That tremendous display of speed was just a glimpse into the depths of talent Morgan had which he finally had a full season to make use of.
He played every game of the season for the Cowboys and his form in his newfound role at fullback earned him a spot as 19th man for the Maroons in Game III. His debut was still a year away but the demonstration of his flexibility put him firmly in calculations for the bench utility role which has become his forte at rep level. He was voted the Cowboys player of the year and most improved at their end of season awards. His remarkable turnaround signalled the arrival of a star player for North Queensland.
The flick pass from Heaven
To begin the year of 2015, Morgan was retained at fullback for the opening few rounds of the season. The Cowboys had enjoyed a successful season so there was really no need to change a winning formula.
That sentiment quickly eroded as the Cowboys opened up their 2015 campaign in disastrous fashion. They were thrashed by the Roosters in Round 1 in Townsville and followed it up with an embarrassing loss to the Knights, who were the eventual wooden spooners, the week after. By Round 3 Morgan vacated the fullback role to Coote and moved to the halves where he has stayed since and never looked back.
Fortunes started to turn after an 0-3 record to start the season and needless to say 2015 turned out to be a prosperous year for Morgan and the Cowboys. On a personal level, he achieved great success by making his Origin debut when Cherry-Evans was ruled out of Game I through injury in what seems to have become a recurring trend throughout his career.
At club level he formed a potent duo with Thurston and the strength of his running game acted as a perfect foil to his halfback. 15 tries for the year made him into one of the most lethal attacking halves in the competition including a double in the preliminary final against the Storm where they made Melbourne look like amateurs on their home turf. The best was yet to come though.
Everyone knows that flick pass. Thurston got the ball away to Morgan as he began a sideways charge across the 20 to the edge. Credit to the awareness of O’Neill to cut back on the inside and put Oates in two minds as Morgan made that mighty effort to free his hand in a two-man tackle and get the ball away to Feldt in space. The pass that elicited an almighty groan from Wally Lewis in commentary and sent Darius Boyd collapsing to the ground in defeat.
It was the once in a lifetime moment in a grand final that will live on in Rugby League immortality.
In 2016 things were a little quieter for him, after all it’d be near impossible to top a year where he had made his Origin debut and helped deliver a maiden premiership for the Cowboys. Indeed his form took a downward turn during the year as the Cowboys became the hunted and teams were more alert to the threat Morgan posed.
Regardless he earned his rep debut for Australia in the ANZAC Test and retained a spot in the side for their victorious Four Nations campaign. As a testament to his recent success, in his most uneventful season of recent times he managed to make his national debut.
Ascension to star halfback
You wouldn’t know it from where he is now but Morgan was actually in dreadful form to start the year of 2017. After his form had already taken a dip in the previous season, it was going down the drain even further as some tough early season losses to the Sea Eagles and Tigers demonstrated. When the Sea Eagles thrashed them in Round 3, Morgan was near invisible, handing the ball off to be somebody else’s problem most of the time. In Round 5 against the Tigers, he registered a measly 29 kicking metres for the match.
When Thurston went down for the season, it was entirely understandable that Cowboys fans believed that they were well and truly screwed. Taking on the responsibilities of being the halfback in the absence of Thurston didn’t come easily to him.
One of his first games as the main playmaker was against the Dragons in Round 7 and his lack of finesse was evident as they went into half-time down 28-4. However there were glimpses of brilliance in the 2nd half as he scored a try, and laid on an assist as the Cowboys closed the gap to 6 points in the end.
Some up and down performances followed for the next few weeks. Eventually though everything clicked for him beginning with a tremendous performance in Round 10 against the Bulldogs. In that match he registered 4 try assists and scored one himself meaning every single try the Cowboys scored came about from his handiwork. In just the space of a few weeks Morgan had started to play like a game managing halfback.
As the season progressed, every week he seemed to add that little extra touch of class to his. At rep level he destroyed the hopes and dreams of NSW with another flick pass to his winger which sunk NSW in Game II before taking a spot at centre for Game III. Unsurprisingly he did a great job there and made a mockery of NSW’s makeshift centres.
Morgan took that Origin boost back to club level as he continued to lead and inspire, even while the casualty ward for the Cowboys continued to pile up. When the Cowboys took on the Storm with just two fit men on the bench for 73 minutes, it was Morgan who took them on single-handedly as he ran for 165m and busted 11 tackles in a phenomenal solo effort.
The Cowboys were the walking wounded but every week they put in a tremendous effort and Morgan was always at the forefront of it.
He finished the regular season with 18 try assists and 10 tries of his own. His kicking ability had increased tenfold and he’d played well enough that people were almost asking themselves ‘Thurston who?’. While the whole team is to be commended for their never say die efforts, it’s also reasonable to say that at times it was like Morgan was dragging the Cowboys kicking and screaming to the finals.
It’s interesting to ponder where Morgan might have ended up had Coote not gone down injured at the start of 2014. As the cream of the crop, would he still have risen to the top? Would another club have recognized his talents and poached him away?
Michael Morgan might just be a part of one of the biggest silver linings in sporting history and most of his fortunes have come about at other people’s expenses as a result of injury. Come what may though and every opportunity that has come his way has been taken full advantage of.
The dream run may all come to an end against the Roosters this weekend or perhaps it may just be another stepping stone towards a miracle run to the grand final. Morgan has already surpassed every expectation of just how much he could step up to lead the Cowboys, there’s nobody that wouldn’t be proud of their efforts should they lose.
In the end 2017 has seen Michael Morgan rise to a level among the game’s very best. From reserve grade utility to elite tier halfback, it’s been an incredible journey for him. The best may still be yet to come.
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