Final loss must fuel fire at North Queensland
"EMBRACE this feeling, boys."
That was the crux of Cowboys co-captain Johnathan Thurston's plea to his shattered teammates as they huddled together on the field at ANZ Stadium after Sunday's grand final loss to Melbourne.
The Storm used the hurt of their loss to Cronulla in last year's decider to blow a wounded Cowboys off the park.
And the Cowboys have vowed to use it as motivation to ensure there's no let down when Thurston, Matt Scott and Storm recruit Jordan McLean bolster next year's squad.
"In the huddle out on the field that's what we spoke most about," Cowboys back-rower Coen Hess said.
"Johnno said embrace this feeling boys, and use it as fuel for next year.
"We'll learn from the mistakes but we've learned a lot this year, and if things get tough next year, we can reflect upon these times."
Twelve Cowboys players who ran out on Sunday featured in the grand final win over Brisbane in 2015.
Only Kane Linnett (Roosters in 2010) and Ben Hampton (Storm in 2016) have tasted grand final defeat before, with Thurston also part of the Cowboys team that lost to Wests Tigers in 2005.
Cowboys coach Paul Green described his players' resolve in playing on with injuries as "nothing short of remarkable".
About 10 players who took the field on Sunday were carrying niggles.
As each player refused to sit, their teammates followed suit.
"We've had a huge number of debutants (seven) and huge number of players (32) we've used in a season," Hess said.
"Tonight wasn't just an effort of the 17 guys who took the field, we have a whole playing group of 35 or more and we've had to look to them to help us out.
"That's been the picture of our whole season, guys have played injured and out of position but that's just football.
"I don't think we can use that as an excuse too much. The guys had a job to do, and we fell a bit short."
Cowboys centre Justin O'Neill played in Melbourne's 2012 premiership but it didn't dull the hurt.
"It's tough either way, we just lost a grand final and it's hard," he said.
"It's tough because I still have some good mates in that team. As hard as it is, I'm happy some of them have achieved what they've achieved.
"There's a lot we can take out of the last few weeks, how the boys have stepped up and learned how to play through games with injuries," he added.
"What we've overcome to get into this game and the feeling of losing a grand final, we can take that into next year and hopefully that can drive us to achieve and get back next year."
Green was glowing in his praise of his team's resilience.
"Some of the things they have played with, particularly through injury, has been nothing short of remarkable," Green said.
"If I single anyone out it doesn't do the whole story justice, but (prop) John Asiata's broken hand, (winger) Kyle Feldt tore his groin last week, (five-eighth) Te Maire Martin should have been out with a grade two medial for four to six weeks, and missed one game.
"Cootey (fullback Lachlan Coote) and Coops (Gavin Cooper) with his calf, there's four guys that came back in that (round 25) Tigers game that probably shouldn't have come back.
"(Prop) Scott Bolton all year has been outstanding. He's been playing busted and he has to get needled every week before the game.
"There's so many stories like that. That's what I'm proud of, because no one made them do that. I didn't make them play, they wanted to.
"If you see the break in John Asiata's hand, he'll be getting an operation on Wednesday to get it fixed.
"It shows the character and how much they care for the team and each other."