From the dizzying heights of a shock grand final run in 2017, the North Queensland Cowboys slipped all the way down a greasy pole in 2018, finishing 13th with an awful record.
It was almost as if the motto of the club was ‘Johnathan Thurston will come back, and everything will be alright’.
They fooled me. They fooled the media. They fooled probably even themselves, because as they say, the proof was in the pudding.
Injuries didn’t help their cause, but they didn’t have an excuse to be as low as they were.
Now, the club officially begins the post-JT era, with Michael Morgan set to resume ownership on the field, and they should be confident in their abilities under a strong coach to get back into the top eight.
Like most clubs, they haven’t been free from off-season turmoil with Ben Barba joining and then being dumped before he could play a game, but it’s a bump in a long, tough road.
Colours: navy, grey, yellow, white
Home grounds: 1300 Smiles Stadium, Townsville
Minor premierships: zero
Best finish in last five years: 2015 – premiers
2018 finish: 13th
Coach: Paul Green
Captain: Matthew Scott
Matthew Scott (c), Carlin Anderson, John Asiata, Kurt Baptiste, Logan Brow-Bayliss, Scott Bolton, Javid Bowen, Jake Clifford, Gavin Cooper, Reuben Cotter, Mitchell Dunn, Kyle Feldt, Thomas Gilbert, Jake Granville, Ben Hampton, Coen Hess, Corey Jensen, Jordan Kahu, Nene MacDonald, Te Maire Martin, Josh McGuire, Jordan McLean, Francis Molo, Michael Morgan, Gideon Gela-Mosby, Justin O’Neill, Tom Opacic, Emry Pere, Dan Russell, Murray Taulagi, Jason Taumalolo, Enari Tuala, Kurt Wiltshire, Shane Wright
Ins: Kurt Baptiste (Sydney Roosters), Jordan Kahu (Brisbane Broncos), Nene Macdonald (St George Illawarra Dragons), Josh McGuire (Brisbane Broncos), Tom Opacic (Brisbane Bronco), Dan Russell (promoted)
Outs: Josh Chudleigh (released), Lachlan Coote (St Helens), Shaun Fensom (Brisbane Broncos), Sam Hoare (released), Shaun Hudson (released), Kyle Laybutt (Mackay Cutters), Kane Linnett (Hull Kingston Rovers), Ethan Lowe (South Sydney Rabbitohs), Johnathan Thurston (retirement), Antonio Winterstein (retirement)
The Cowboys have made plenty of changes, but most of it makes sense. Obviously, the biggest name to leave the club is Thurston, who has retired.
The biggest name not sighted above is Barba, who has been replaced by Jordan Kahu from the Broncos.
Elsewhere, Lachlan Coote has departed to England after some indifferent form, veteran forward Shaun Fensom has gone, while Ethan Lowe is a late send-off to the Rabbitohs.
Antonio Winterstein has retired as well, while others, who were in and out of the team, but mainly not playing great footy, in Kane Linnett, Sam Hoare and Kyle Laybutt, have all been released.
Alongside Kahu coming into the squad is one of last year’s best wingers in Nene Macdonald, who had a brilliant season at the Dragons, while the backline is also bulked up by Tom Opacic, who adds depth in the centres.
With Ben Hampton likely to lock down a starting 13 spot, Kurt Baptiste will join the club as the bench utility in a good signing, while arguably their biggest recruit is Josh McGuire, who sensationally left Brisbane.
While McGuire has his fair share of detractors (and some of the criticism is valid), he is a match-winner who knows how to run and tackle hard.
It’s a different spine, but one which could gel and create some good things.
Still, there are a lot of ifs. Kahu at fullback is the first of those, and while no one would be game to rank him as a poor or below average player, it still has to be asked whether having him as the starting custodian is going to work.
He has made most of his name in the centres or at wing, so fullback is a big shift.
Morgan will be looking to go through this season without injury, and while we know exactly what he is capable of, it’s the other halves spot which has the questions around it.
Te Maire Martin appears likely to get first crack at the position, but fellow youngster Jake Clifford is the complete package and could force his way into the top squad.
Regardless, getting the combination right to fit in with the team’s aggressive style will be pivotal if the Cowboys want to go anywhere.
Jake Granville is the other player to make up the spine, and with Kurt Baptiste set to give him a breather off the bench, he could be dangerous if he can get back to the level we saw in 2017.
The wingers won’t be challenged for a spot in Round 1.
While the Cowboys have depth through the likes of Carlin Anderson, Javid Bowen and Gideon Galea-Mosby, no one is challenging two powerful, talented and experienced wingers who are both good finishers – Feldt and Macdonald.
However, the centres have some questions around them.
After impressing throughout 2018, a reasonable guess is that Hampton takes one, while youngster Enari Tuala takes the other spot. Justin O’Neill, Tom Opacic, as well as the players mentioned previously will all be looking for a spot though, so the pressure for spots will be intense.
Signing McGuire rounds out what is arguably the best forward pack in the game.
Ethan Lowe might have left, but based on 2018 form, it was hard to see him getting a spot in the 17, let alone the 13, anyway.
In the middle third, they have Jason Taumalolo – who is the best forward in the game, no questions asked – alongside McGuire and Jordan McLean, who was quiet and hampered by injuries last year, but it doesn’t take a long memory to remember his effects at the Storm.
Taumalolo, oddly enough, hasn’t got as much press in recent years, but it’s really just because he is hitting expectations, rather than belting them down, as he did in his first year. His expectations include 200 metres per game.
The second row combination is again dangerous, with the veteran Gavin Cooper on the left, and dangerous Coen Hess likely to grow further into a starting role on the right.
On top of that, Matt Scott – their skipper – will be relegated to a likely bench spot, while John Asiata, Scott Bolton, Corey Jensen, the impressive Mitchell Dunn, Shane Wright and Francis Molo will fight for the remaining spots, giving Paul Green a stack of depth.
Origin is going to rip through them again this year, but maybe not quite as badly as in the past.
It’s hard to see any of their first-choice back five being picked, while Morgan, McGuire, Cooper and Coen Hess are all likely to be selected for the Maroons.
Likely best 17
1. Jordan Kahu
2. Kyle Feldt
3. Enari Tuala
4. Ben Hampton
5. Nene MacDonald
6. Te Maire Martin
7. Michael Morgan
8. Josh McGuire
9. Jake Granville
10. Jordan McLean
11. Gavin Cooper
12. Coen Hess
13. Jason Taumalolo
14. Kurt Baptiste
15. Matt Scott
16. John Asiata
17. Scott Bolton (suspended – Corey Jensen to replace)
The Cowboys need to dominate the middle third
As mentioned above, there are some minor issues and questions posed around the Cowboys spine, and that means one thing – their forwards need to dominate, and dominate well.
North Queensland have plenty of skill in the forwards, as we have spoken about earlier, and they need to make that count.
When a team may have some consistency issues in the kicking game and creativity stakes, they need extra time and space provided through the forwards dominating from the outset.
That’s what this pack can do. Quick play the balls, big metres, and a skill they perfected in 2017 – attacking through their defence – all need to be on display.
What can Jordan Kahu bring at the back?
While Kahu is talented and could fill any position in the back five if needed, naming him as a starting fullback after some time on the wing and at centre seems a major risk.
He is just another question of the spine the Cowboys have, but it’s one they need to find a way to answer positively.
When Barba was there, this preview was going to come out a few days later, but I do tend to think swapping Kahu for Barba is a big blow.
The biggest question over North Queensland and Kahu is the fullback’s defence. Can he adapt, play with vision and guide the team around the field? The best fullbacks also have excellent communication.
The other question is fitness. The extra miles in the legs might burn, particularly early in the season, and this club can’t afford mistakes at the back through fatigue.
|1||Sat Mar 16||7:35pm||St George Illawarra Dragons||1300 Smiles Stadium||Fox|
|2||Fri Mar 22||7:55pm||Brisbane Broncos||Suncorp Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|3||Sat Mar 30||5:30pm||Cronulla Sharks||1300 Smiles Stadium||Fox|
|4||Sat Apr 6||5:30pm||Canberra Raiders||1300 Smiles Stadium||Fox|
|5||Fri Apr 12||7:55pm||Melbourne Storm||1300 Smiles Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|6||Sat Apr 20||5:30pm||New Zealand Warriors||MT Smart Stadium||Fox|
|7||Fri Apr 26||6pm||Canterbury Bulldogs||ANZ Stadium||Fox|
|8||Fri May 3||6pm||Gold Coast Titans||1300 Smiles Stadium||Fox|
|9||Sun May 12||4:05pm||South Sydney Rabbitohs||Suncorp Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|10||Sat May 18||5:30pm||Parramatta Eels||1300 Smiles Stadium||Fox|
|11||Sat May 25||3pm||Canberra Raiders||GIO Stadium||Fox|
|12||Sun Jun 2||4:05pm||Gold Coast Titans||CBus Super Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|13||Sat Jun 8||7:35pm||Manly Sea Eagles||1300 Smiles Stadium||Fox|
|14||Fri Jun 14||7:55pm||Wests Tigers||1300 Smiles Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|15||Fri Jun 28||6pm||St George Illawarra Dragons||WIN Stadium||Fox|
|17||Sun Jul 14||2pm||Sydney Roosters||Central Coast Stadium||Fox|
|18||Sat Jul 20||7:35pm||South Sydney Rabbitohs||1300 Smiles Stadium||Fox|
|19||Thu Jul 25||7:50pm||Cronulla Sharks||Shark Park||Nine/Fox|
|20||Thu Aug 1||7:50pm||Wests Tigers||Leichhardt Oval||Nine/Fox|
|21||Thu Aug 8||7:50pm||Brisbane Broncos||1300 Smiles Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|22||Sat Aug 17||3pm||Newcastle Knights||McDonald Jones Stadium||Fox|
|23||Fri Aug 23||6pm||Penrith Panthers||1300 Smiles Stadium||Fox|
|24||Thu Aug 29||7:50pm||Canterbury Bulldogs||1300 Smiles Stadium||Nine/Fox|
|25||Fri Sep 6||7:55pm||Melbourne Storm||AAMI Park||Nine/Fox|
The quick breakdown
Teams to play twice: St George Illawarra Dragons, Brisbane Broncos, Cronulla Sharks, Canberra Raiders, Melbourne Storm, Canterbury Bulldogs, Gold Coast Titans, South Sydney Rabbitohs, Wests Tigers
Best home run: Round 1 – Round 5 (four out of five)
Worst away run: Round 15 – Round 22 (five out of seven)
Five-day turnarounds: one
This certainly isn’t one of the easier fixture lists.
The Dragons, Broncos and Sharks are going to give us a good indication of where North Queensland are early, before they have the Raiders and Storm to close out the first five weeks.
They play four of those games at home though, with only the Broncos being an away game, so with some tough opposition and home support, they can set up with a nice boost of momentum.
Their double-up list is mixed, but with the Dragons, Broncos, Sharks, Storm and Rabbitohs, they are going to get a good work-out.
They also play five out of seven games away from home at the back-end of the season, before finishing in Melbourne, so one would suspect they need to be firmly in the top eight with eight weeks to go.
This is almost the same side that made the grand final in 2017. What happened last year needs to be put to the side, and the return and ownership of Morgan will make a huge impact.
By the time it’s all said and done, the Cowboys should be well entrenched in the top eight.
This series continues tomorrow with the predicted fifth place.
16th – Parramatta Eels
15th – Canberra Raiders
14th – Manly Sea Eagles
13th – New Zealand Warriors
12th – Canterbury Bulldogs
11th – Cronulla Sharks
10th – Wests Tigers
9th – Gold Coast Titans
8th – Brisbane Broncos
7th – Newcastle Knights