Retired North Queensland great Matt Bowen looks set to make a triumphant return for the Cowboys at the Auckland Nines.
But it seems the long wait to see Johnathan Thurston feature in the NRL season opener will continue.
Cowboys coach Paul Green did not rule out a Bowen comeback at next month’s Nines after the veteran fullback was spotted on Thursday at training.
However, Green admitted he would not risk co-captains Thurston and Matt Scott at the traditional opener with the World Club Challenge (WCC) looming.
Speculation that Bowen would maintain the trend of retired legends returning for one last Nines hurrah began late last year after confirming he would take up a Cowboys development role in 2016 following a UK Super League stint.
And the 33-year-old Bowen didn’t mind perpetuating the rumour, tweeting last month he would play if selected.
Green hinted the Cowboys’ games record-holder would need to earn his Nines spot.
“He’s got to pass a beep test so that might rule him out,” Green joked.
“(But) we’re going over there to take it seriously.
“Not that Matty wouldn’t be up to it, but any team we take we want to make sure they’re up to the standard.”
Cowboys favourite son Bowen watched North Queensland’s historic 2015 NRL title win from the UK.
The closest Bowen came to a premiership for his beloved North Queensland was the 2005 grand final loss to the Wests Tigers.
He appeared doomed to never win a title after ending his 16-year career in Wigan’s 22-20 Super League grand final loss in October to Leeds.
But Cowboys back-rower Gavin Cooper hoped the veteran was able to have one last crack at a trophy at the February 6-7 tournament.
“Every kid would who had seen him play,” he said.
Green said the squad had already benefited from Bowen’s return this week to training.
“We would be mad not to use a guy with his experience as a mentor for some of our younger guys,” he said.
“All the players get a kick out of having him out there on the training paddock.”
Green said Scott – back from off-season neck surgery – had asked about the Nines and understood why Thurston would want to play after missing the first two tournaments.
But Green said the WCC was their priority.
NRL champions North Queensland, runners-up Brisbane and 2015 minor premiers the Sydney Roosters will contest the WCC against Leeds, Wigan and St Helens from February 19-21 in England.
“I think every player would like to experience it (Nines) – Matty Scott keeps telling me he wants to play Nines at some stage,” Green said.
“But definitely, I wouldn’t risk those guys (Scott, Thurston).
“The WCC is something we are looking forward to – there is plenty at stake.
“Our focus will be that we play well in that game.”
Green said winger Antonio Winterstein (broken hand) was “touch and go” for the WCC.