It’s been a hard couple of years on the field for the Wellington club and, for the most part, that has mirrored the situation in the town of roughly 4,000 people, but at the very least passion’s never been lacking in Cowboys country.
Drug issues within Wellington have been well-documented, with NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research showing the amount of people using illicit substances in the town last year was well above the state average.
But the Cowboys, led by captain-coach Aidan Ryan, are determined to change things.
Ryan, president Darren Ah See and many others involved in the club are passionate about the cause and believe two marquee signings can help Wellington achieve its goals.
After months of rumours and speculation the Cowboys have confirmed former South Sydney and NSW State of Origin winger Nathan Merritt has signed with the club while former Australian representative Timana Tahu has come on board to help in a mentoring role, both on the field and in the community.
“Football has been lacking in this community for the past two seasons so we can build up with two blokes of this calibre,” Ryan said.
“We’re all working together. I love my town and I wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t. To have blokes like this who people look up to, we want them to start up some programs and show people there’s more to life than drugs, booze and smoking.
“Hopefully these people can promote that.”
It’s been 24 years since the Cowboys won a Group 11 first grade premiership and Ah See was part of that side.
Ah See also heads the Wellington Aboriginal Corporation Health Service (WACHS) and has come on as president at the Cowboys this season.
Ryan described him as “fantastic” and someone who is determined to help the club develop on the field and be promoted in the right light off it.
“He wants to see the town go forward, not backwards,” Ryan added.
“It already feels like we’re winning. It’s a success to have blokes like this at the club and to have them doing what they are in the community.
“It’s not just us, this is a good thing for Group 11. I know I idolised these players growing up.”
Merritt and Tahu are both ambassadors for Quit B Fit, a WACHS program which focuses on ‘tackling Indigenous smoking’ and that was where the link with the Cowboys developed.
They will both travel back regularly for Group 11 matches but also to run programs and seminars and show people in the region “what it takes to be successful” and “that there’s more to life than drugs”.
And in terms of the impact they and fellow new signings Adrian Davis, Reg Saunders, CJ Ralph and EJ Fernando can make on the field?
“Finals is my number one goal,” Ryan said.
“Anything after that is a bonus. We’re going to be really competitive.”
Davis is a particularly exciting signing.
He spent time at the Newcastle Knights, playing under 20s there, before later linking up with the Penrith Panthers.
While at the foot of the mountains, Davis played in the Panthers side which contested the 2015 Auckland Nines.
He will wear the number seven at the Cowboys while Saunders, a much-traveled forward who has played in the Queensland Cup, is also expected to make an impact.
Ryan added he’s been impressed by young guns Brogan Black, Will Lousick, Mac Dutfield and Trey Doolan, while Richard Peckham has also been hard at work in training after missing much of last season through injury.
“It’s a few mates who have let me down but that’s water off a duck’s back,” Ryan said of the pre-season attitude.
“We’re not going register unreliable players. Darren and I have spoken about that and we’re not going to waste our time.”
Fans and rival clubs will get their first glimpse of the new-look Cowboys at the Parkes Nines on March 25 while Wellington travels to Nyngan in round one of the 2018 Group 11 season.