On Friday evening, following the North Queensland Cowboys 24-12 loss to the Canterbury Bulldogs, the overwhelming feeling for Cowboys coach Paul Green seemed to be disappointment and frustration.
During his press conference Green alluded to the older and more experienced players in his group who are “playing okay” but need to do more to “bring the team together when we are under pressure”.
In other words, there are some key members of that Cowboys squad not doing their job.
But my question is: how well is Green doing his?
I know we are only seven rounds into the 2019 season, but the gap between the good teams and the bad teams seems to be widening. Additionally, pressure continues to mount on certain coaches, in particular Anthony Seibold at the Brisbane Broncos, Nathan Brown at the Newcastle Knights and, bizarrely, Dean Pay at the Canterbury Bulldogs.
But it’s becoming increasingly unclear to me how coaches like Pay and Seibold can be under pressure when they have inherited teams from their predecessors – in particular Pay, who inherited a steaming bin fire from the previous administration whose decisions in relation to the salary cap continue to hamper the Bulldogs retention and recruitment even now.
For Brown, with each mounting loss the pressure continues to rise.
I’m wondering, though, why the pressure on Green doesn’t seem as high and why the North Queensland’s poor performances seem to continue to be excused.
The Cowboys have some serious problems, and without some dramatic changes in personnel I don’t see that changing any time soon.
Some have suggested the Cowboys are going through a rebuilding phase and that it will take some time to adjust to life after Johnathan Thurston. That’s a fair point – there will always be challenges for any team fortunate enough to have a once in a generation player in their squad – but the Cowboys were awful last year even with Thurston as part of the squad.
Very few could have predicted that Thurston would return from his 2017 injury and struggle and that the Cowboys would struggle so much last year, but once that was obvious, wasn’t it time to start thinking about the transition and giving an opportunity to some new players?
Additionally, the retirement of JT was not a surprise. Is helping a team transition from one era to another not the mark of a good coach?
Craig Bellamy of the Melbourne Storm is a fantastic example. Over the last couple of preseasons the noise being made about the decline of the Storm has become louder.
First it was because they had lost Cooper Cronk. They made the grand final the year after he left. Then it was the loss of Billy Slater.
While Melbourne have not been as convincing as they were last year (yet), they seem to be surviving the post-Slater era remarkably well, sitting equal first on the ladder with the Sydney Roosters and the South Sydney Rabbitohs due to the inclusion of fresh, new players Bellamy has been grooming for the past couple of the seasons.
On that, consider the Cowboys recruitment.
All clubs make mistakes in this space. My team, the Parramatta Eels, have made some absolute howlers in the past, with most clubs in the NRL having at least one Parramatta junior in their squad.
But over the last couple of years consider the calibre of players the Cowboys have lost, most notably Villiame Kikau, who now stars for the Penrith Panthers, and Kalyn Ponga, who is the main man at the Newcastle Knights.
They have also been desperately unlucky. The Cowboys signed Ben Barba to fire up what is an otherwise uninspiring backline. The Cowboys could never have foreseen how the situation with Barba would play out. Although they did the right thing by sacking him, his departure did nothing for their squad.
It also looks to me like some of their more experienced heads have decided to play on one season too many.
The Cowboys are eagerly awaiting the return of Jason Taumololo, and no doubt he will make a big difference to the team with his barnstorming runs and 300 metres per game.
But my concern is that should Taumololo return and the Cowboys manage to turn their horrid form around, it will effectively cover up some of the more serious problems North Queensland have with a game plan that looks like it would fit more appropriately in 2016 and their ageing roster.
Moving from being dependant on one JT in Johnathan Thurston to another in Jason Taumololo is not an effective strategy and will do nothing but ensure that this team misses the eight again in 2019.
And while pressure continues to mount on coaches in 2019, there is speculation about who will be the first to go. How much longer will losing be tolerated at the Cowboys? And if this is indeed a transition year, what changes will the squad make ahead of 2020? Because it might be time to start planning for it.