Pre-season preview: Can JT win another one for the Cowboys?

Jack Aubrey Roar Guru

By Jack Aubrey, Jack Aubrey is a Roar Guru

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    Whether you like it or not, the Cowboys in 2018 will all be about Johnathan Thurston. The returning maestro will play out his last season, free from the responsibilities of representative duty.

    2017 was all about what the Cowboys could do without JT, with the halfback sustaining a shoulder injury in Origin 2 that took him out for the remainder of the season.

    With an indifferent end to the regular season, and obviously struggling with injury and the loss of their captain, the Cowboys limped into the finals, then proceeded to prove the cliche that everything changes come September.

    Three weeks in a row, playing away from home, North Queensland defied the odds to book a place in the grand final. While they were comprehensively beaten on that night, they showed that life after Thurston looks rosy – they are far from a one-man band.

    But they now get Thurston and fellow key member Matt Scott back for 2018, and who knows what a difference the pair will make.

    How does their squad rate?
    Remarkably, of the 17 players that took the field for the club in the 2015 grand final, 14 are expected to line up in Round 1 this year.

    Their biggest loss for 2018 is Kalyn Ponga, who has gone to Newcastle. Their biggest recruit is Jordan McLean.

    The backline of Lachlan Coote, Kyle Feldt, Justin O’Neil, Kane Linnett and Antonio Winterstein have been the preferred back five for a number of seasons. Javid Bowen has always looked capable stepping into first grade. We haven’t seen Gideon Gela-Mosby much but he looks a good prospect.

    Most notably, JT’s absence last year took Michael Morgan’s form to another level. They also now have Te Maire Martin should injury strike again.

    The forwards look the goods. Scott comes back from injury, and will be desperate to make up for lost time. We saw the emergence of Coen Hess last year, a real try-scorer. Gavin Cooper is ever reliable on the edge, Jason Taumalolo is the most damaging forward in the game right now, and McLean just adds more in the way of quality and experience.

    Scott Bolton, John Asiata, Shaun Fensom, Ethan Lowe, the list just goes on for the Cowboys.

    They have one of the best packs in the game. A genius in the No.7. One of the form halves of last season at five-eighth. A settled spine. Depth. This is a top-two roster.

    Michael Morgan NRL Finals North Queensland Cowboys Rugby League 2017

    Michael Morgan has really stepped up for the Cowboys. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

    Ins
    Carlin Anderson (Townsville Blackhawks – 2019), Jordan McLean (Storm – 2020), Francis Molo (Townsville Blackhawks – 2018)

    Outs
    Patrick Kaufusi (Storm), Patrick Mago (Broncos), Kalyn Ponga (Knights), Ray Thompson (retired), Braden Uele (Sharks), Blake Leary, Ben Spina (released)

    Key man
    It couldn’t be anyone else. That man, JT.

    When a club can get to a grand final without their highest paid and most influential player, what are the expectations when he returns?

    Thurston is being talked about as a real contender for the next Immortal – winning another premiership this season would only strengthen the argument.

    As gutsy as the Cowboys were last year, there is no way of replacing the experience, composure and winning mentality of a guy like Thurston.

    Having him for the season, hopefully injury free, and knowing this will be his last will be a massive asset.

    North Queensland have never won a minor premiership. Could this be the year?

    Johnathon Thurston North Queensland Cowboys Rugby League NRL Finals 2016

    Johnathan Thurston: one of the NRL’s best. (AAP Image/Dave Hunt)

    Where do they need to improve?
    They weren’t that rock solid during the season, probably down to injury disrupting them, but nonetheless they have to be better.

    While they suffered in attack, as losing your halfback will do, their defence was still very competitive, and they will want much of the same.

    Despite being able to get things together come finals time, they won’t want to be slumming it in eighth again, or letting other teams decide their fate.

    Even if they have injury strike again, this team is too resilient and talented to miss out on the finals. Eighth was a good effort but they are better than that.

    Again, it is hard to be too critical of the runners-up of 2017.

    Top-five clashes
    Round 2: Broncos versus Cowboys, Suncorp Stadium, March 16
    One of my favourite fixtures of the rugby league calendar, with a history of so many games that have gone right down to the wire – especially since the 2015 decider.

    A massive Queensland crowd at one of the best venues in the country. This will be one not to miss.

    Round 3: Storm versus Cowboys, AAMI Park, March 22
    We won’t have to wait long for the rematch. The Storm were comfortable winners to claim the 2017 premiership, but the Cowboys will fancy their chances with their squad fully fit.

    Round 7: Cowboys versus Titans, 1800 Smiles Stadium, April 21
    Another round, another Queensland derby. It might seem like the Cowboys should win this easily, but the Titans always aim up against their big brothers.

    Round 21: Roosters versus Cowboys, Allianz Stadium, August 4
    These sides will have pretty similar goals for 2018. Cooper Cronk will take on his old Queensland halves partner as they jostle for a top-four spot.

    Round 23: Sharks versus Cowboys, Southern Cross Group Stadium, August 18
    The Sharks knocked out the Cows in 2016, a year later and they returned the favour, dispatching of the Sharks by one. They have had some history in finals series – who knows what will be on the line in this one.

    How will they go?
    The squad is great. They have star power returning. Thurston will play out of his skin in his final season.

    It is hard to find anything wrong with the Cowboys, but there are 15 other teams out there, some with just as much talent and potential, who will have Paul Green’s men firmly in their sights.

    Still, it would take a brave person to tip against this side making the top four. This side should have aspirations of winning a premiership and sending JT out a winner.

    Predicted finish
    Minor premiers

    The New South Wales State of Origin team for the 2018 series remains a mystery, with new coach Brad Fittler facing plenty of selection headaches. So we want you to tell us - and all your mates - who should start for Blues in Game 1 with our team picker.

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    The Crowd Says (24)

    • Roar Rookie

      February 14th 2018 @ 8:16am
      Joe said | February 14th 2018 @ 8:16am | ! Report

      They definitely have all the right ingredients to go all the way. What a forward pack, rep halves. If anything I’d say question marks may be over Linnett and Winterstein, not the quickest backs in the comp but then again they make up for it in metres using their big frames. I think Round 1 vs Sharks would be a key game…Sharks will be looking for revenge for their finals exit and we’ll see what effect the return of JT, Scott and addition of Mclean makes. What a start to their season – Sharks, Broncos, Storm.

      • February 14th 2018 @ 9:20am
        jimmmy said | February 14th 2018 @ 9:20am | ! Report

        Joe , you are on the money as usual. The Cows IMO have the best pack in the comp. We can hold our own in the forwards against any team and will dominate Most. We have the best halves pairing in the comp . Creative , disciplined and seasoned.
        Our weakness is in our outside backs . We just can’t score long range tries like the Storm can . We get field position and then JT , Morgs or the dynamic duo of JT13 and Hess bring it home. We lack pace and guile in our outside backs and while I have a lot of time for Lachlan Coote , who I believe plays to his absolute potential 95%of the time, he is not in the top half dozen fullbacks in the comp.
        The Cows are a genuine premiership winning chance this year despite our lack of pace out wide and what a way to send off JT that would be. The nerves have already started.

      • February 14th 2018 @ 11:32am
        Peter Phelps said | February 14th 2018 @ 11:32am | ! Report

        Unfortunately, I think that JT is pushing his body one step too far. I think he desperately wants to go out with the Cowboys on a high and last year’s exit from Origin and then seeing the Cowboys go down in the big one will have hurt. Ambition and will power are great to have and that has got him over the line more than once but I think injuries will take their toll.

        I think the Cowboys will do much better than last year but reaching the top 4 would be a good achievement in my view.

        I doubt they will get to the big one.

        • February 14th 2018 @ 12:38pm
          jimmmy said | February 14th 2018 @ 12:38pm | ! Report

          It’s really interesting. There were people on here saying the same thing about Billy Slater last year. Too old, injury prone, body wouldn’t handle it. So I will say the same thing to you as I said to them . Write off a champion at your peril,
          Billy was always going to make a successful return as will JT , as will Mat Scott. Let’s revisit this in round 10.

          • February 16th 2018 @ 3:00pm
            Roostermark said | February 16th 2018 @ 3:00pm | ! Report

            Slater wasn’t targeted as much as Thurston will be by the big boppa’s, I doubt he will last the season.

    • Roar Guru

      February 14th 2018 @ 8:42am
      The Barry said | February 14th 2018 @ 8:42am | ! Report

      The more of these articles come out the more excited I get about the season. So many unknowns.

      A lot of people are pegging the Cowboys as the most settle and I get why.

      But even they have the “problem” of how to define JTs role back in the side after Morgan’s late season performances and how Matt Scott returns from injury.

      As problems go they’re good ones to have but there’s still a dynamic there that needs to be sorted.

      I read an article from JT the other day that he thinks this season will see him handing over the reins to Morgan. A changing of the guard.

      That could all be smoke and mirrors of course but it shows even the most settled team has a few queries going in.

      • February 14th 2018 @ 9:25am
        Paul said | February 14th 2018 @ 9:25am | ! Report

        exactly right TB, I was putting cursor to screen to say what you’d written! Is this going to be JTs side or Morgan;s side this year? I don’t know you can have both. Or is it Morgans side and they let JT do his on thing?

        In any event, they are going to be mighty hard to toss for the premiership, especially if they get a few finals games up north

        • February 14th 2018 @ 11:33am
          Peter Phelps said | February 14th 2018 @ 11:33am | ! Report

          Errrr, Roosters, Storm, Broncos ……… They have one or two decent players as well don’t you know!

      • February 14th 2018 @ 11:05am
        E-Meter said | February 14th 2018 @ 11:05am | ! Report

        I don’t know how Thurston ‘hands over the reins’ as such. The guy is the ultimate competitor once he crosses the touchline. With the game on the line 5 minutes from fulltime, instinct will kick in as he goes to work. I don’t know how he can hold himself back.

        • Roar Guru

          February 14th 2018 @ 12:49pm
          The Barry said | February 14th 2018 @ 12:49pm | ! Report

          Yeah maybe.

          But he’s also a team player. Turning out for Queensland he was happy to share responsibility with Lockyer, Smith and Cronk without having to run the side.

          And it makes sense to me to have the 35 year old bloke coming off a season ending shoulder injury to have a less physical role than he has in the past and chiming in when he needs to. It might be about making sure he’s still got the legs to make that huge last minute play.

          But yeah, I agree once it’s all on the line instinct takes over.

          • Roar Guru

            February 14th 2018 @ 1:25pm
            Matt H said | February 14th 2018 @ 1:25pm | ! Report

            True, in recent years the Maroons was managed by Cronk and Smith, with JT chiming in. Before that JT ran it more, with Lockyer chiming in. And Slater from the back of course.

            Looking at that, how did NSW even win the one series? Will we ever see a group like this again?

            • Roar Guru

              February 14th 2018 @ 5:45pm
              Nat said | February 14th 2018 @ 5:45pm | ! Report

              DCE, a gifted square peg trying to fill a round hole. Keep in mind, in 06 Lockyer was the only genuine superstar in a team coming off 3 straight series losses. You cannot replace those guys but the Qld system has already blooded (along with DCE) Morgan, Munster, Hunt, Miford, Holmes, Gagai, Napa, Hess, while McCollough and Kaufusi have been in/around the camp for a while too. I’d call that safe hands.

    • Roar Guru

      February 14th 2018 @ 11:21am
      Scott Pryde said | February 14th 2018 @ 11:21am | ! Report

      Premiers. I just don’t know how they are going to be beaten if JT and Matt Scott can get back to their best. Jordan McLean is a really good buy for mine and he will add plenty up front where at times they lacked last season for mine. That’s not a knock on Scott Bolton (who has to come back from that horrific injury anyway), but McLean is leaps and bounds ahead of him.

      They won’t be beaten often in Townsville either. Tough place to go and play away from home that.

      • Roar Guru

        February 14th 2018 @ 12:51pm
        The Barry said | February 14th 2018 @ 12:51pm | ! Report

        Wasn’t it Fensom that snapped his leg in the GF?

        Is that the injury you mean?

        • February 14th 2018 @ 1:31pm
          KingCowboy said | February 14th 2018 @ 1:31pm | ! Report

          It would have to be Fensom. Saw Bolts running around the other day. Looked brilliant!!!

          • Roar Guru

            February 14th 2018 @ 2:24pm
            Scott Pryde said | February 14th 2018 @ 2:24pm | ! Report

            Ah, yep… I don’t know how I came up with Bolton. Definitely Fensom.

      • Roar Guru

        February 14th 2018 @ 1:27pm
        Matt H said | February 14th 2018 @ 1:27pm | ! Report

        If they get into a position to have home finals, they are going to be very hard to stop.

        My only query is whether the long season will get to an ageing squad, in terms of injuries and drop in form. They have Coote (injury prone), JT, Scott, Cooper, and few backs at risk.

        • February 14th 2018 @ 3:25pm
          KingCowboy said | February 14th 2018 @ 3:25pm | ! Report

          We have depth this year Matty. Only position I am worried about is hooker if Jake the Snake goes down. We can cover everyone else.

    • February 14th 2018 @ 12:48pm
      KingCowboy said | February 14th 2018 @ 12:48pm | ! Report

      The key man is Morgan. IMO and I am biased, I think he is now the best player in the game. Bring on the Footy!!!

    • February 14th 2018 @ 1:33pm
      Albo said | February 14th 2018 @ 1:33pm | ! Report

      Yep ! They look to be an awesome team to try to toss.
      Just two queries for me that could possibly change all that :

      1. Further injury to JT & Scott throughout the season as their bodies are both at that age where impact and wear and tear can take its toll more readily. JT had a couple of bad ones last season, after being virtually injury free for a decade, and we know he won’t be ducking the heavy workloads ?
      2. Whether the JT & Morgan combination can again operate well in tandem after Morgan’s new controlling role of late last season ?

      But assuming a fair run with injuries they must be one of the teams in serious contention for the premiership. I can see a Storm v Cowboys GF shootout in 2018.

    • February 14th 2018 @ 2:58pm
      3 recalcitrant monkeys said | February 14th 2018 @ 2:58pm | ! Report

      The minor premiership is a stretch I think. Its almost certain we’ll lose 5 players to origin, though the depth of the squad is good . The cowboys still have to travel so five losses at least, but it’s the big games and the big moments that they excel at. Underestimating Matt Scotts impact in the middle is foolish or the Thurston / Morgan combination at the try line missing from last year’s finals. They tactically gained a long kicking game through Morgan’s improvement last season so they are probably a better side than 2015 with better depth

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