Ben Barba is to return to the NRL at the end of the season, having agreed a deal with North Queensland.
Fox League commentator Warren Smith revealed North Queensland coach Paul Green asked him in February to tell his colleagues to stop talking up the Cowboys as premiership favourites.
I can understand that Green wouldn’t have wanted such expectations hanging over his team, but do his comments suggest his players were complacent with their preseason training?
What the Cowboys achieved last year was nothing short of miraculous. With the amount of injuries they had – they were a busted team with a horrendous win-loss record without Johnathan Thurston – their attitude, intensity, enthusiasm, desire and will to win saw them reach the grand final.
So what has happened in 2018?
It all comes down to a lack of the same qualities I just mentioned – attitude, intensity, enthusiasm, desire and the will to win.
After the Melbourne loss in Round 3, Green criticised his players for “reading too many headlines” (relating to their premiership favourites tag) and not being good enough in the “effort areas”.
They look like a team who has taken last year’s success for granted and coupled with the return of their co-captains, Thurston and Matt Scott, they have the mindset that success will come easily.
One major problem they need to rectify is their first-half performances. Slow starts are seeing opposition teams fly out of the gate with two or three try leads and it’s obvious from the players’ body language that their confidence is shot and their frustration levels are reaching boiling points because they’re continuously playing off the back foot.
When have we ever seen North Queenssland giving away penalties for dissent and players giving teammates sprays after an error or a breakdown in communication?
Their second-half performances are usually a vast improvement, but the holes they are digging themselves have proven to be too deep to climb out of.
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Some have suggested the team is now too old and slow, which is ridiculous. They’re only seven months older since last year’s grand final and it’s natural for a team and individuals who are low on confidence to be low on energy.
Others have pointed to misfiring halves, Thurston and Michael Morgan. Although Thurston is struggling and Morgan is playing as if he’s on another planet at the moment, they are not the sole reasons for the team’s woes.
Their middle third has been getting carved up in defence way too easily. Their contact in tackles (tackle efficiency) hasn’t been good enough, resulting in too many quick play-the-balls and offloads, while their goal-line defence has been ordinary.
When they’re not defending well and having to chase points, they don’t seem to have a plan B if their attack is stuttering. That would usually mean taking more risks with offloads, attacking spreads from their own half, 40-20 attempts, chip kicks and the like, none of which the Cowboys are known for.
They prefer low-risk play, coming out of their own end with one-out hit-ups and dominating the middle third, which is why they have one of the highest completion rates of the past couple of seasons.
Their goal is to dominate field position and only once they enter the opposition’s 20-metre zone do they execute attacking structures.
But the competition has figured out how to counter the Cowboys’ style of play and attacking structures. They’ve become too predictable because they haven’t evolved over the past couple of seasons.
The halves are not in sync with each other and it looks as if they’re both trying to organise and ball play. Morgan is arguably the most dangerous running half in the competition but from what we’ve seen, he’s not playing to his strengths.
The forwards also need to take some ownership for the stuttering attack. They’re not laying a platform and they’re not establishing momentum by producing strong carries, post-contact metres, offloads and quick play the balls.
This is the biggest challenge Paul Green has ever had to face in his coaching career. He’s had the luxury of being able to field a relatively consistent line-up for the past three years, but will he bite the bullet and drop underperforming experienced players and inject some fresh blood?
It’s obvious that there’s more than enough rugby league intellect between the coaching staff and a star-studded team to know what is required to get them out of this slump.
That should include an honesty session, where every player needs to ask themselves what the club jersey means to them and if they believe they are fulfilling their role in the team.
The one shining light has been the performances of Ben Hampton. Here’s a guy who is desperate to cement a place in the starting line-up and has publicly expressed his desire to wear the number 1 jersey permanently. Apart from a mixed game against the Broncos in Round 2, he’s easily been the Cowboys’ best player.
The difference between Hampton and many of his teammates is he’s playing with the same positive attitude, intensity, enthusiasm, desire and will to win they all showed in 2017.
If his efforts can rub off, then we will see North Queensland bounce back and qualify for the finals.