He takes his Bulldogs to Townsville on Saturday night looking to bring North Queensland to their knees but there was a time when Canterbury coach Des Hasler was highly sought after by the Cowboys... as a player.

Celebrating their 20th year in the National Rugby League, the Cowboys have anniversary celebrations planned for next week's blockbuster against the Broncos but stories from the early days make it amazing to think they ever got this far.

The Sydney Bulldogs, as they were known at the time, were the Cowboys' first opponents 20 years ago with Cowboys centre Adrian Vowles sent off in the 32-16 defeat by the visitors.

Desperate for inclusion in top-flight rugby league, proud North Queenslander Kerry Boustead headed up the drive for a team in the NRL on the back of taking a Townsville team to a Winfield State League title in 1991.

When John Lang declined the invitation to become the inaugural coach of the Cowboys in 1995 Boustead turned to respected lower grade and junior coach Grant Bell and the pair set about building a roster from scratch.

Bringing NRL players with ties to North Queensland back to the region was a major focus but they also knew they needed senior figures who could set the culture that the club was to be built upon, and Hasler was a primary target.

At that stage of his career Hasler had already played more than 200 first grade games for Manly and Penrith and having left Manly for a stint with Hull FC in England at the end of the 1993 season, Boustead and Bell set about luring him northward.

Boustead played alongside Hasler at the Sea Eagles for three seasons between 1984-86 but said even that wasn't enough to convince him to join the North Queensland pioneers.

"He took a trip up and had a look around but I don't think The Strand quite compared with Manly beach at the time," Boustead told NRL.com.

"I was quietly confident [of getting Hasler] but I wouldn't say that he was ever more than a 50-50 chance.

"He was looking around at the time and we were a fledgling club and it's hard for players to go to a brand new club when they've got the same opportunity at an established club."

Bell, who served under Wally Lewis at the Gold Cast Seagulls before returning to North Queensland, said Hasler was just one of a number of high-profile first-graders that the founding Cowboys missed out on.

"'Bowie' and I sat with [Hasler] and again he was a culture buy. What we wanted to bring were guys who had the wonderful training ethic, the desire to contribute," Bell said.

"We were very very keen to get Dessie because great trainer, wonderful work ethic and still is. The media portrays a different Dessie and he probably portrays a different Dessie to what he is and what he gets out of players.

"You don't get the results he gets without having that buy-in of the players. We wanted those blokes who weren't North Queenslanders to bring that."

The likes of Brett Rodwell and Dan Stains were other players that the Cowboys came close to signing but it was former Storm fullback Robbie Ross that Bell rues most.

Damian Gibson has the honour of scoring the Cowboys' first try in the then ARL competition and played 31 games for the club in their first two seasons, but he was not the club's first choice fullback.

"It was the making of 'Gibbo' [Damian Gibson]. He came in at fullback and was a revelation but he was the second one we were going to sign," Bell said.

"He wasn't our target, our target was Robbie Ross. 'Boo-Boo' was the player on the rise and we offered him what was a pretty reasonable deal and Les, his dad, came back and said, 'I want another $7,500.'

"Jason Martin had set that up, he'd said that this is the best player on the rise, you want him, and I was keen to get him.

"The board's comment was, 'If he wants that amount of money tell him to go away and become someone and we'll give him it.'

"Well, he went on to play for Australia a couple of years later. Oops." 

This article first appeared on NRL.com