NORTH QUEENSLAND'S transformation from cellar dwellers to finalists has been a strenuous ordeal, with several players battling injuries and thoughts of retirement on the road to reaching the club's first finals series since 2007.
Three years ago, after suffering a second serious knee injury in as many years, Matt Bowen was prepared to walk away from the game. He'd had enough.
Restricted to just 14 games in two seasons, the Cowboys fullback and Queensland Origin representative lost the desire to fight his way back.
''I was going to throw it all away,'' he said. ''Thinking that you couldn't perform at your best like you used to and having to train without playing. After the second injury I had to start training in the early hours of the morning and I just didn't want to be there. I kept it to myself and talked to my partner about it a few times, and she was supportive and said to keep at it. I'm lucky I stuck at it.''
Brent Tate has also battled his way back from the brink of retirement to be part of the Cowboys' first finals campaign in four years.
The former Brisbane and Warriors centre broke down into tears when he ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament in the Four Nations final against New Zealand less than a year ago, just weeks before the start of his first pre-season with the Cowboys.
The heartache almost forced him to hang up the boots, unconvinced he could ever recover from a third knee reconstruction.
But after eight months of fighting negative thoughts, Tate made his debut for the Cowboys in round 19 and is now an integral part of their charge to the title.
A knee injury almost robbed Johnathan Thurston of the chance to be part of this year's finals series. The halfback was in agony when he collapsed on to the turf of Suncorp Stadium in game three of this year's Origin series, later returning to the field in a wheelchair to celebrate the victory with his teammates.
''My initial thought when I went down was my season was over,'' Thurston said. ''Once the doctor assessed it and I saw the specialist, it was good news. But I'm lucky because I've been a part of six straight series wins, and I don't think that will ever be done again. The surgeon said it was six weeks and I came back in five. They said if you injure it again, it's just pure unlucky. All the work I'd done in that five weeks got me back to being confident of taking hits with my knee.''
Then there's Australian international Willie Tonga, who played through most of the opening Origin match this year with a dislocated shoulder. His inspirational efforts saw him miss the following two Origin games and the next two months of football for the Cowboys.
Forward Scott Bolton was spoken about as a possible Origin bolter last year and was rewarded with a position in the emerging Maroons squad at the start of this year.
But his season has been plagued by calf injuries, limiting the 24-year-old to just 14 games, most of them off the bench. ''That wasn't a good feeling but it was probably a bit of a reality check,'' he said. ''Now I'm in the team for the finals.''