MARK it down now: the Cowboys ‘should’ be right amongst it in 2013 – perhaps even featuring on the last Sunday of the season.
Obviously it’s early days – a ball hasn’t been kicked, and injuries can play havoc with any squad – but the boys up north have built a roster full of power and skill.
And let’s face it, it’s rubbing salt into the wounds that they get to put it all together with Johnathan Thurston at the helm!
Along with the two-time Dally M Medal winner Thurston they’ve a phenomenal starting front row with James Tamou and Matt Scott.
Throw in young dynamos including Tariq Sims and James Taumalolo, sprinkle solid performers like Gavin Cooper, Scott Bolton and Dallas Johnson, and their pack takes on ‘benchmark’ status.
Thurston makes any backline he plays in look good – but at club level he still gets plenty of assistance, with the likes of the age-defying Matt Bowen, as well as gifted outside backs Brent Tate, Kane Linnett, Ashley Graham and Kalifa Faifai Loa contributing to his lustre.
And while Ray Thompson and Michael Morgan both look like great halves options inside Thurston, the Cowboys have an added wild card in Robert Lui, who may or may not break back into the limelight.
That said, there is a big asterisk disclaimer that must be attached to their tilt – the Cowboys need to cover for the loss of hooker Aaron Payne to retirement. With back-up James Segeyaro also gone, North Queensland will need to find a regular, quality replacement at dummy-half. They’ve signed Anthony Mitchell for the job but the jury’s well and truly out.
Payne was their glue for years; maybe he didn’t get the fanfare his other teammates received but his contributions to the basics and the fabric of their game plan were indelible.
Their only other potential problem could be Thurston’s contract saga. If it drags on, or if he decides to move to Sydney, could it pose a major distraction to the team?
In 2012, the Cowboys led the NRL in average points scored (24.7 a game) and also line-breaks (5.3 a match) and there’s no reason to suggest they can’t do the same again.
Thurston is a magician; it is no wonder a handful of Sydney clubs are putting forward massive offers for the playmaker. He averaged a try assist a game in 2012 and added 26 line-breaks, mostly via his customary show-and-go.
Quite simply the Cowboys will rely on Tamou and the recently re-signed Scott to set a platform again to allow the backs to go to work. Tamou averaged 155 metres a game last year and Scott chimed in with 144. Add young tearaways Sims and Taumalolo to the mix and opposition defenders will be forced to stay compressed. It’s then the mercurial backs will pounce.
Kane Linnett is the wild card who can really help elevate the Cowboys to another level. After a few seasons in the top grade, the former Dragon and Rooster has played alongside Thurston often enough to break out into a banner year. That’s not to say he wasn’t good in 2012 – he scored 12 tries in his 24 games with 14 line-breaks and an average of 126.4 metres, the best return by any back at the club.
Tariq Sims is reportedly back healthy and Jason Taumalolo has had another season and off-season to blossom. These young forwards have the potential to bring intimidation and fire to the Cowboys pack, not to mention some extra skills and line-breaking abilities.
A robust runner, Taumalolo averaged more than a couple of tackle busts a game in limited minutes in 2012. If he’s fitter and stronger, as is anticipated, he could be on his way to becoming a Tony Williams-style wrecking ball in FNQ.
Sims needs to prove he is fully over his busted leg; but if he is able to do so you can be sure he’ll be back on the NSW selection radar.
The big issue is at hooker. Aaron Payne’s stats might not have appeared special: he played 25 games in 2012, scored just one try, made just two line-breaks, eight line-break assists, six try assists, 18 tackle-breaks and 23 tackles… but it was the unquantifiable parts of the game where Payne was irreplaceable. His style ensured the marker defenders were constantly engaged, concentrating on what he was doing.
So how will they cover? After some strong form in their trials English recruit Scott Moore is likely to start in the No.9, supported by Anthony Mitchell who filled the role adequately late last year. But will either player be able to instill the same level of confidence in their teammates that Payne did? Time will tell.
The other issue is Thurston’s contract. Reports suggest he could earn multi-millions if he were to return to Sydney and take advantage of third party opportunities. At 29, you can see why he’s interested in one big, final payday. But if it isn’t resolved soon and it becomes a distraction to him and his teammates, the Cowboys could easily start a slide.
A small question mark also remains on the team’s psyche after their controversial exit last year. They were on the receiving end of some harsh
refereeing decisions – but they need to forget it and move on. If they go into the year feeling like they’re hard done by every time a penalty is blown, their wheels could fall off.
Back from shoulder surgery, Anthony Mitchell needs to lift his game to a new level to cover for Aaron Payne – but it would also be good to see Brent Tate improve in a few areas. Granted the former Test and Origin player is getting on in years (he’ll be 31 on March 3) and he has suffered some big injuries in his career but his 20 errors and average 2.7 missed tackles a game last year were slight concerns. If he can tighten that up and continue to provide triple figures in metres gained (101 metres last year) he’ll be doing his job well.
With Lui, Morgan and Thompson the club has a few halves to complement Thurston but should Thurston go down for an extended period, so too will the Cowboys. The forward pack looks solid outside of dummy-half where, if injuries occur, youth might need to be thrown into the deep end. Mitchell and Kostjasyn might need to be wrapped in cotton wool.
Neil Henry will only come under pressure if the Cowboys fall in a heap. He has added steel to the Cowboys’ defence and he steered them to two games shy of the grand final last year. A clever operator, he should feel comfortable in his Townsville office in 2013.
At the very least, mark this band down as top four material again. With luck both through Origin and with injuries they should be there when the whips are cracking. In fact, if there’s a threat to back-to-back Melbourne premierships, they are it.
Predicted finish: Premiers