Season 2019 continued the Cowboys’ dramatic fall from grace after their 2015 premiership.
The last four years were characterised by a pack that looked great on paper but failed to deliver and an ageing and ordinary back line. Despite high hopes of Michael Morgan, the Cowboys attack has not yet recovered from the retirement of Johnathan Thurston.
There have been excuses for the Cowboys such as the loss of Ben Barba for disciplinary reasons before he even played a game and an injury crisis that saw John Asiata in the halves and Coen Hess in the centres. However, the fact remains their whole team has looked in need of mass changes to the playing group and an updated style of play.
For 2020 it looks as though the necessary changes have been made. This is headlined with star recruit Valentine Holmes to play fullback. Reece Robson and Esan Marsters are two other recruits expected to play a big role, while Matt Scott and Scott Bolton have both retired and several outside backs have been released.
With a brand new stadium and a rejuvenated side, the Cowboys could be this year’s version of 2019’s Parramatta Eels?
Their forward pack remains strong. They will be again led by undoubtedly the best forward in the world Jason Taumalolo. He will be joined in the middle by representative forwards Jordan McLean and Josh McGuire. Gavin Cooper and Shane Wright will likely start as their edge back-rowers. Both are very reliable players but lack the brilliance of some others. This starting pack will be complemented by a group of quality young forwards, ensuring they have plenty of depth for the season.
It remains to be seen how their spine will look in 2020. They will likely run with two hookers, pairing new recruit Reece Robson and experienced clubman Jake Granville. They will battle for the starting position, however the highly rated youngster Robson will take the lion’s share of minutes, allowing Granville to return to the running game that made him so dangerous in their premiership year.
It seems that Holmes is locked into the fullback spot, while club captain Morgan will take one of the halves positions. That leaves Scott Drinkwater and Jake Clifford fighting for the remaining position. Both are exceptional talents more than capable of fulfilling the role. The ability of Ben Hampton and Drinkwater to play fullback ensures all positions in their spine have plenty of depth.
Many will disagree, but Clifford is their only genuine organising halfback. As such I hope he is given this position and Morgan is allowed to run. It seems, however, most experts are tipping Morgan to take the seven jersey with Drinkwater likely to partner him.
The back line – while also not yet settled – looks stronger than previous years. Club favourite Kyle Feldt is assured of taking his place on the right wing. One centre position will be filled by new recruit Esan Marsters. At 23 years of age he should be about to show his best football. His form dropped off towards the back end of the season, however Cowboys fans will be hoping he will play the type of football that has seen him already amass six Tests for New Zealand. The remaining positions will go to two of Tom Opacic, Justin O’Neill, Hampton and Murray Taulagi.
Their key strength this year is a more balanced side. In previous years they have stacked the pack at the expense of their back line. Their forwards remain strong while the quality of their spine and back line has improved.
Settling on the strongest line-up and developing combinations quickly will be vital for the Cowboys to be successful in 2020. It will be equally important that Holmes makes a seamless return to playing NRL after a year out of the game pursuing NFL.
If he struggles, not only will it mean a key position player isn’t performing, but also given his price tag and players being moved to accommodate him, there is potential for it to cause unrest within the team. This likely won’t be a concern, however, as all the noise out of the Cowboys camp regarding Holmes is positive so far.
The final obstacle will be if coach Paul Green can empower his troops to play the type of attacking football they are capable of. The Cowboys have been playing an outdated style of attack that has struggled for any potency without the brilliance of Thurston.
It seems illogical to recruit an offloading machine like Marsters and pay big money for the likes of Holmes if you were not prepared to allow them to play the style that suits them. Green has identified the need to adapt his team’s attack to be successful in 2020.
With so many question marks over the make up of their back line, what do you think is their strongest side? And how do you believe the Cowboys will perform in 2020?