North Queensland have farewelled their spiritual home in Townsville with a rugged 15-8 NRL victory, which ended the Bulldogs’ finals hopes.
Well, here we go again. Despite Friday’s win over the Gold Coast, the Cowboys sit outside the eight with one six competition points to their name.
Despite losing their champion half Johnathan Thurston to retirement, North Queensland acquired some big-name recruits to fill the void. Expectations were high, and the team spoke about how committed they were to return to the finals in 2019.
Things haven’t started off well. Season 2019 is mirroring 2018. Confidence among the playing group appears to be low. There are rumours swirling of a falling-out between players and coach.
Make no mistake, the Cowboys are struggling.
That’s not to say there aren’t shining lights. Former Broncos Josh McGuire and Jordan Kahu can hold their heads high.
Kahu has been the Cowboys’ most consistent outside back, returning solid metres with minimal errors.
Josh McGuire is the second most effective running forward in the competition, one metre behind David Klemmer. McGuire is averaging 174 metres and 33 tackles per game.
For all the plaudits John Bateman is receiving at Canberra, McGuire is the form forward in the NRL. He also leads the NRL in post-contact metres.
Michael Morgan has had rocks-and-diamonds moments throughout the season, but has produced good results overall, coming up with plenty of try assists, line break assists and 40-20s.
The Cowboys have the most effective running forward in the competition, as well as one of the most effective halves.
So what’s missing?
A few things, to be exact. A running fullback who can break the line as well as tackles, for one. Also, a hooker who can create more try-scoring opportunities.
Te Maire Martin has been played out of position since Round 2. He is not a natural fullback. His catching technique is awkward and appears to nearly fall over himself when attempting to catch a bomb.
When he arrived at the Cowboys in 2017, he possessed a nice step and good acceleration to poke through the line. These traits seem to have abandoned him as Martin has only posted one line break this season.
In addition, he averages 97 metres, the least of any fullback in the NRL. He also leads the Cowboys in handling errors with seven.
During every game he has played at fullback, he has spilled a catch at a crucial time. I can’t fault the young man for his attitude or enthusiasm because he possesses these qualities in spades. But fullback is not his most effective position.
I hope he has a speedy recovery from a brain haemorrhage. But his unfortunate injury has spared Green making a tough call by leaving him out of the team.
Jake Granville is another player whose form has deteriorated alarmingly. So far this season he has posted no try assists, line breaks or line break assists.
In 2017 he recorded ten try assists, which was a big reason why the Cowboys made the grand final. He took a lot of play-making pressure off Morgan and his craftiness around the ruck is severely lacking.
While Kurt Baptiste has brought some spark, his highest try assist tally was two in 24 games back in 2016.
Unless Granville can rediscover his best form, the Cowboys will need someone else to help Morgan with the play-making duties if the side wants to score enough points to win matches.
Jake Clifford is the answer, but he is not being used effectively. I’ve heard plenty of coaches come out over the years and say there’s no difference between a No.6 and No.7.
I beg to differ.
Cowboys fans will know that Thurston played his best football in the No.7 jersey. Neil Henry played him at five-eighth from 2012-13 when the Cowboys experienced inconsistent form.
When Paul Green moved him back to halfback toward the end of 2014, the difference was noticeable straight away. The Cowboys went on a late-season surge and continued that form into 2015 when they won the competition.
Clifford is a natural halfback. Morgan is an effective game manager but there is no reason why he can’t manage a game at No.6 and focus on running the football, which is his greatest strength.
When the Cowboys were at the zenith of their powers from 2015-16, Thurston played first receiver and would put Morgan on the outside of opposition defenders, where he would hit a hole or draw and pass for a try assist to an outside back.
The Cowboys have looked their most effective in attack this season when John Asiata is on the field playing first receiver. He has a terrific draw and pass which holds opposition middle defenders and opens space on the edges for Morgan to create opportunities.
Check out this highlights package from Round 9, 2016 when the Manly hosted North Queensland at Brookvale Oval.
Fans criticise the Cowboys’ attack for being stale and Green’s inability to refresh his plays.
Looking at this footage, the attack has regressed, rather than just remained stale.
In one play, Morgan and Thurston combine for a cross-field attacking sweep that results in a try in the left corner.
I cannot remember the last time the Cowboys halves combined to create a try.
Morgan and Clifford need to combine on attacking plays and not be restricted to only the left and right sides of the field.
If Clifford is moved to halfback and Morgan to five-eighth – and they are instructed to combine on more attacking plays – then more tries will flow off the back of their combination.
When Kyle Feldt is cleared to return from injury, he should be given an opportunity at fullback.
While he doesn’t possess the play-making abilities of the elite NRL fullbacks, he is the Cowboys’ most potent back. He has the size and speed to create try-scoring opportunities and is more adept at defusing high kicks.
Word on the grapevine is that the club is targeting boom St George Illawarra rake Reece Robson. Having a young player of his quality would be beneficial and would go a long way to resolving the club’s dummy-half issue.
Jason Taumalolo may take some time to return to his barnstorming best after suffering an MCL injury.
However, even if he averages around 150 metres per game (his lowest average since 2014), the pack should have little trouble making territory with Josh McGuire in career-best form.
If Clifford and Morgan swap positions and play to their strengths, with a dangerous Feldt lurking out the back, North Queensland’s attack should improve.
With the right changes and a bit of fortune, the Cowboys and their fans will be enjoying many a shandy over the coming weeks.