Cowboys contract puts Moranbah boy on cusp of NRL dream
Michael Bell left the Mackay Cutters as an 18 year old to begin his would-be professional rugby league apprenticeship with the North Queensland Cowboys.
Now 21, he returns home with the world at his feet and an NRL berth within reach, should he be ready and willing to claim it.
Bell is one of 12 Cowboys players allocated to the Cutters for the 2021 Intrust Super Cup season, joining a list of local products ready to be called upon by coach Michael Crawley should they not be tapped for an NRL start.
Mackay rugby league products Reuben Cotter, Shane Wright and Mitch Dunn have all shared time between the Cowboys and Cutters in seasons past, using the Queensland Cup as a platform for bigger and better football honours.
And Bell is next in line to do the same, after the Cowboys handed him a development contract for 2021.
The Moranbah Miners junior spent time in the Cutters’ U18 and U20s systems, before moving north to link with the Cowboys and feeder club Townsville Blackhawks.
It was with the Blackhawks that Bell broke out in 2019, starring for the club’s U20s and earning a late-season call-up to the Intrust Super Cup side.
The flyer was poised for a breakout 2020 campaign before COVID-19 cut the Queensland Cup season short at just one game; his proving ground for an NRL start suddenly ripped out from under him.
But Bell had tasted top-tier footy – a surprise inclusion in the Cowboys’ NRL Nines-winning squad – and he resolved that 2020 would be just a minor inconvenience in his ultimate quest to live out a boyhood dream.
“It was difficult,” Bell admitted.
“I hadn’t really missed any footy since I was six.
“No footy was a lot different … (but) it was good opportunity for me to get a bit better, do some more weights and get stronger, which is something I lacked before the COVID break.”
With 2020 hindsight Bell said sitting out the year was “sort of a blessing in disguise”; forced to redouble his off-field efforts and prove to the Cowboys he was deserving of the development contract he would later receive.
“There was no footy for them to see me play, so they really put faith in me,” Bell said.
“I’m just really grateful they did that for me.”
Bell put on “four or five kilos” in his makeshift off-season, much of which he jokes has been lost through pre-season conditioning. But the strength – and lessons – remain.
“Centres these days are getting a lot bigger. I needed to put on that weight and strength so I can play that centre spot and make it my own,” he said.
He takes a mental notepad to each session, picking the brains of his experienced Cowboys contemporaries whenever possible.
“The older outside backs like Justin O’Neill and Ben Hampton – guys that have a lot of NRL experience under their belts have helped me a lot,” Bell said.
“I’m just trying to take in as much information each training as I can.”
Bell’s early goals for 2021 are modest. He hopes to cement a senior starting spot with the Cutters and return to the kind of form that had him tapped for big things last year.
“I’m really just keen to get back into it and hopefully play a full-year of senior footy, which I haven’t been able to do yet,” he said.
“I grew up with (the Cutters). It will be good to get back down there and play with my mates again.
“Rayden Burns, Tommy Irelands … Blake Paskins is another I’ve played in the 18s and 20s with.
“And if the opportunity comes (to play NRL) I’ll be ready.”