It just wasn’t meant to be for the Cowboys in 2018. After a 2017 grand final appearance, the stage was set for a tilt at a premiership in what would be the final season for champion halfback Johnathan Thurston.
But with all the pressure and expectation, the Cowboys wilted, winning just one of their first six matches to immediately put their campaign on the ropes.
With just three wins in the opening half of the season, the great Thurston settled for a final win against the Gold Coast in the last round of the regular season.
Now, life must begin without their inspirational general of the past decade or so.
Gone is the experience, control, and composure of the man that led them to their first ever premiership. Added to that is the pressure a disappointing season can have on a club.
North Queensland have a far better roster than their bottom-four position suggested, but now have to go about proving it without their most influential player.
Story of the off-season
Ben Barba was slated to return to the NRL in a Cowboys jersey this season after two years playing overseas. This will now not occur after Barba was banned by the NRL, after an incident with his partner.
It leaves the club short of an option at fullback, but demonstrates a stronger stance on such incidents by the NRL.
Kurt Baptiste (Sydney Roosters, 2019), Nene Macdonald (St George Illawarra Dragons, 2021), Josh McGuire (Brisbane Broncos, 2022), Tom Opacic (Brisbane Broncos, 2020), Dan Russell (2020), Jordan Kahu (Broncos)
These are some handy pick-ups.
Baptiste gives them depth in the hooking role, and cover for Jake Granville. Macdonald is a good buy to replace the retiring Antonio Winterstein.
Josh McGuire bolsters an already impressive pack, while Jordan Kahu is a late signing who can play anywhere in the backline and kick goals too.
Josh Chudleigh (released), Lachlan Coote (St Helens RLFC), Shaun Fensom (Brisbane Broncos), Sam Hoare (released), Shaun Hudson (released), Kyle Laybutt (released), Kane Linnett (Hull Kingston Rovers), Johnathan Thurston (retired), Antonio Winterstein (retired)
Thurston is the big loss. Three members of their premiership-winning backline have also departed with Coote, Linnett and Winterstein all moving on.
It is a fair whack of experience leaving, and while outside Thurston they may not be the flashiest players, they have all given plenty to the club.
How does their roster rate?
Plenty of this squad participated in their recent grand finals, as well as Origin series. They may not have Thurston, but his halves partner, Michael Morgan, was more than capable of guiding them to a grand final in 2017.
Without Barba or Coote, Ben Hampton will probably play at fullback to start the season. The versatile back had one of his better seasons last year and without the other two options, looks most likely to get first use.
Kyle Feldt has been one of the club’s most consistent since his miraculous last-gasp try in the 2015 decider and will push for an Origin spot. On the other wing is likely to be Macdonald. Gideon Gela-Mosby debuted last season and scored six tries in eight matches, adding depth out wide.
Justin O’Neil, Tom Opacic, Jordan Kahu, Enari Tuala and Javid Bowen are all contestants for centre spots, and other backline positions in the case of injury. Each brings experience or flair, depending on which way Paul Green wants to go. There is plenty of healthy competition.
The halves pairing will most likely start out as Te Maire Martin and Morgan, the same pair who played in the 2017 grand final. Martin had big expectations coming into first grade at Penrith in 2016, but has failed to really set the league alight.
Both need to offer more with Thurston now absent.
Jake Granville will once again be hooker, with Baptiste offering cover off the bench or in case of injury.
Up front, there are no problems. McGuire, Matt Scott, Coen Hess, Gavin Cooper, Jason Taumalolo, Jordan McLean and Scott Bolton make up an experienced, dynamic and aggressive pack that might just be the best in the League.
As good as the forwards might be, they need to capitalise on their opportunities far more.
Too often last season the attack looked stale and with Thurston – who led the league in try and line break assists – now gone, Morgan has some big shoes to fill.
The bonus of not having JT is that Morgan may feel more comfortable demanding the ball. He will rejuvenate the attack with his own distinct style, with a more prominent running game.
With the siren sounding in the background of the 2015 grand final, Thurston found Morgan as the Cowboys desperately searched for a levelling try. The younger man ran across the field, engaging three defenders, before flick-passing to Feldt, who scored in the corner.
Then in 2017, with Thurston out for the season and the team limping lamely into the finals, Morgan produced three class matches to propel them into another big dance.
While Thurston has attracted far more headlines, Morgan has had his fingerprints over some pretty big moments. He needs to step up and run this team.
Where do they need to improve?
North Queensland need to start better if they are a hope of making the finals.
Losing five matches in a row early meant that they were immediately under pressure and it told as they searched for wins to get back on track. Having eight losses by a margin of eight or less doesn’t help either, and is an indication that they were playing some good football at times, but unable to come up with wins.
At times, the Cowboys looked bereft of ideas in attack, and with Thurston departing – along with some change in the backline – the attack will change, in what may be a good thing.
The campaign begins at home, against the Dragons on a Saturday night, with 15 games in the Sunshine State, including a stretch of five straight to start.
They play six matches against teams that finished in last year’s top four.
They play the Titans without their Origin players before Game 1, then back up three days later against the Sea Eagles at home. They have the bye before Game 3, but back up against the Roosters in Sydney four days later.
Six of the Cowboys’ final nine games are against teams that were in the finals last season. With the Origin series likely to take a toll, it is a run home that will test them.
How will they go?
We will see now more than ever what effect Thurston had on this club. How many times did we see him pull games out of the fire? To take that much Origin experience and influence out of a team cannot be underestimated.
As strong as the pack might be, the backline is fresh and combinations will take time to form. Te Maire Martin has been a solid performer, but needs to be a whole lot more without JT. Jake Granville needs to rediscover some form, and without Ben Barba at the back, they need to figure out who is the best option there.
While Michael Morgan got the Cowboys into the grand final in 2017, having to run a side for 24 weeks or more is a far different ball game. He is also likely to play Origin. Injury to him would be catastrophic, with no genuine halves depth.
This is a side that should play finals, but there are plenty of good teams in the NRL, and the Cowboys have lost their most valuable piece.
Long term they will be fine, but short term they will struggle with their identity, and to replace a once-in-a-generation player.
Predicted finish: 10th