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2021 Cowboys analysis, Part 2: On the field

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Roar Rookie
16th January, 2021

With Part 1 analysing the people behind the scenes, the players make up Part 2.

The roster
The Cowboys’ roster has been the cause of confusion about the club’s poor form. A roster boasting stars such as Michael Morgan, Matt Scott, Jason Taumalolo, Josh McGuire, Coen Hess, Gavin Cooper and Jordan McLean through the down period at the Cowboys leaves many understandably baffled.

The Cowboys’ roster is worthy of a top-eight position. The star power of names such as Valentine Holmes, Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo makes for an incredibly compelling case of the Cowboys’ capabilities on paper.

While Valentine Holmes’ adjustment in returning to rugby league wasn’t smooth sailing with injury and poor form to begin, it is hoped and expected that with a taste for the NRL again, in 2021 we will see him begin to return to what made him hot property before leaving. Questions remain over whether he is best played on the wing or at fullback.

Michael Morgan has only managed 37 out of 68 games since signing his lucrative deal after his performances majorly contributed to the Cowboys’ 2017 finals campaign. The 2018 season saw a shoulder/bicep injury end his season early and 2020 saw him in and out of the campaign due to injury.

No one will question the Cowboys’ co-captain’s talent. Only in the loss to the South Sydney Rabbitohs did we need to see what Michael Morgan can do. However, it is whether he will be on the park that remains the question, with rumours of medical retirement placed over his future after the 2020 season.

Jason Taumalolo is one of the few NRL players who is worth every cent of his million-dollar deal. Usually a ten-year commitment is ludicrous, let alone with a million-dollar price tag. However, it has been a smart decision for the Cowboys. Taumalolo’s form is consistent and the impact of his performances cannot be questioned.

Jason Taumalolo

Jason Taumalolo. (Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

The Cowboys’ fullback position is likely to be occupied by Valentine Holmes, with Scott Drinkwater capable of also playing at one if desperation calls for him to be out of his five-eighth position.


The Cowboys’ wing stocks are headed by the experience of Kyle Feldt, who had a breakout 2020 season, scoring 19 tries and making a case for an Origin debut before injury denied him the opportunity. While excitement machine Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow was earmarked as Feldt’s wing partner, it appears that Connelly Lemuelu and Murray Taulagi will compete for the other wing position.

The centre position is an interesting one for the Cowboys. Dual premiership winner Justin O’Neill’s form has come in for criticism following the 2016 season and the defence of Esan Marsters saw him dropped in his first season at the club since signing from the Wests Tigers.

Todd Payten has stated that Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow will likely begin the season at centre, which may be for the youngster to develop, particularly in defence. The Cowboys’ depth in the centres is strong but young, with Connelly Lemuelu, Murray Taulagi and rookie Michael Bell having only played 17 games between them.

The Cowboys will hope to have Michael Morgan steering the side around the park in the halves. A confident Michael Morgan’s impact on the team has been noticeable, particularly for his experience, willingness to dig into the line and game management. This will be crucial for the Cowboys if his body allows him.

Jake Clifford will be around for one more season before he leaves for Newcastle in 2022. Clifford’s 2020 was somewhat stuttered, being dropped by interim coach Josh Hannay before returning with noticeable improvement, particularly in the Cowboys’ win over the Dragons. Game management is all that stops Jake Clifford becoming a great half, which will come with game time, which he may see if Morgan’s body continues to cause problems.

Michael Morgan

Michael Morgan. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Scott Drinkwater will occupy the six jersey. Drinkwater’s instinctive creativity, silky passing ability and kicking game was a highlight for the Cowboys, seeing him involved in 32 tries for the Cowboys in 2020. Daejarn Asi will be on his heels, who got his opportunities in 2020 and held his own with his naturally calm and composed attitude in the five-eighth and centre positions.

The Cowboys’ prop depth will leave minimal worries for Cowboys fans and Todd Payten. Jordan McLean and Josh McGuire and the abundance of experience they bring adds value to the Cowboys’ starting line-up. McGuire and his determination, competitiveness and work ethic is a focal point in the Cowboys’ front row.


The reliable Francis Molo will occupy a spot on the interchange bench. The colossus Corey Jensen is also in contention for a spot on the bench. The green shoots in the Cowboys’ front row also comes from Emry Pere, who got his opportunity in 2020, and Kiwi kids Wiremu Greig and Griffin Neame.

Premiership-winning dummy half Jake Granville’s game time became sporadic in 2020, although he will continue to compete with youngsters Reece Robson and Reuben Cotter, who impressed many Cowboys fans last season.

The second row also packs promise for the Cowboys. Coen Hess will look to put the past few seasons behind him, Mitch Dunn had a 2020 season he will look to build on and Tom Gilbert will look to cement himself in the 17. Shane Wright will be eager to impress in a bid for a contract extension. Tongan man mountain Peter Hola will spend the pre-season training on the edge and Ben Condon will look for more NRL game time after earning a debut in 2020. This presents an enviable headache for Payten.

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At lock, Jason Taumalolo will continue to round out the Cowboys’ forward pack with his destructive runs, carries and tireless defence.

Roster changes included the retirement of veteran and club legend Gavin Cooper. PNG Kumul Dan Russell and emerging prop Garrett Smith were released by the club. Tom Opacic joined Parramatta, and 2015 premiership winner John Asiata signed with the Brisbane Broncos. Highly rated youngster Tukimihia Simpkins was traded to the Wests Tigers in exchange for young winger Kane Bradley, who signed on a two-year deal.

Bradley will add a strong carry out of yardage and the aerial attributes of his 196-centimetre build will help him compete for a wing spot.

The club also managed to sign workhorse prop Lachlan Burr, a consistent performer under Todd Payten at the Warriors. Burr will bring line speed, a strong work ethic and toughness, and he will be a reliable member of the Cowboys’ squad, competing for a spot in the 17.

Headaches could emerge for the Cowboys with names such as Scott Drinkwater, Francis Molo and young talents such as Ben Condon, Murray Taulagi and Connelly Lemuelu off contract at the end of 2021. With Jake Clifford Newcastle bound, keeping Scott Drinkwater is imperative.

Francis Molo

Francis Molo. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

The 2022 season looms even larger for the Cowboys with young talent in Daejarn Asi, Reuben Cotter, Mitch Dunn, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Peter Hola and Tom Gilbert coming off contract.

With cap space at the Cowboys limited, the Cowboys may find themselves relying on the departures of names such as Justin O’Neill, Ben Hampton, Josh McGuire and Jordan McLean to find cap space to retain their young talent.


The pathways
There are two approaches to player recruitment in rugby league; recruitment and development. The latter has arguably become somewhat more of a trend recently having seen the success the Penrith Panthers enjoyed with their program in the 2020 season.

With signings such as Jordan McLean, Josh McGuire, Nene Macdonald, Reece Robson, Esan Marsters and Scott Drinkwater in recent years, recruitment has been key for the Cowboys.

However, in his first press conference as coach, Todd Payten said “as a development club”, hinting at a change in approach for the Cowboys.

This was furthered by the announcement that the club will wind back the clock, bringing back its young guns program, which brought through the likes of Matt Scott and Gavin Cooper for the Cowboys.

This program will see the Cowboys identify 15-20 young players from their contracted junior leagues in Northern and Central Queensland, which will presumably be identified largely by Dane Campbell.

Each player will use the facilities at the club’s new centre of excellence, train with the squad and train in a program designed by Todd Payten, Ben Rauter, Glenn Hall, young guns coach Ben Jeffries and other members of the footy department. This will be intended to enable young players to have a seamless transition into first grade at the Cowboys.

The Cowboys will be maintaining their strong links to New Zealand. This has brought them names such as Brandon Smith, Emry Pere and Jason Taumalolo.


Who we might see this year
While there is plenty of competition for spots on the bench at the Cowboys with Peter Hola, Francis Molo, Lachlan Burr, Ben Condon, Corey Jensen and Tom Gilbert lining up for spots 15-17, two names we could expect to see are Kiwi youngsters Griffin Neame and Wiremu Greig.

Neame, a product of Greymouth, is a hard-working forward with a mindset ready for first grade. He is highly rated within the club and the respect coaches and teammates have for him already has been indicated by earning the yellow training top awarded to the hardest trainer in pre-season.

Wiremu Greig, a 192-centimetre, 124-kilo middle forward is another who has been in North Queensland for a couple of years and impressed many with appearances for the Northern Pride and Townsville Blackhawks, which are two of the Cowboys’ three feeder clubs. He is expected to be given an opportunity.

For the outside back stocks, development contract centre Michael Bell will be knocking on the door for selection when the NRL rules allow it. A Moranbah junior, Bell is said to have an impressive leap and speed to burn.

Where the Cowboys need to change

Line speed and contact
It’s no secret that the Cowboys’ defence has been underwhelming in recent seasons. In the modern game, line speed is essential. One thing we can be sure will improve in the Cowboys for 2021 is line speed.

The Cowboys’ line speed in previous seasons has left a bit to be desired, and it has been a problem for the club. Under Todd Payten, the Warriors’ line speed noticeably improved and Payten emphasised the work that the Cowboys will put into their line speed over their pre-season.

Payten also touched on the first contact that the Cowboys will make, which becomes crucial in the new era of the six-again rule. The Cowboys conceded 31,515 metres, leaving them in seventh position for run metres conceded.

Todd Payten

Todd Payten. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

While not deplorable, they conceded the equal second most tries. You cannot afford to concede metres with a lacklustre defensive attitude and poor goal-line defence. The Storm and Panthers both conceded under 29,500 metres in 2020.

The first contact also requires work, with a seeming reluctance to tackle around the legs and many examples where opponents were simply grabbed around the shoulders for a shirt pull.

The key to defence is attitude, and this is what the best teams get right. The emphasis the Melbourne Storm put on defence is no secret. The Sydney Roosters’ coach Trent Robinson takes the belief that defence is a living and breathing thing, emphasising the need to always be alert and never stop in defence.

The best don’t see defence as a chore. While it may be counter-intuitive, the best teams almost want to defend all day long if they have to do it. If the Cowboys can achieve this, improvement will be reasonable to expect.

Support running
Finishing 15th in support running shows a clear weakness in this era from the Cowboys. In the day of the six-again rule, what becomes important for many teams is a dummy half that plays with his eyes up.

Teams need a dummy half that is always seeking gaps before he picks up the ball, challenging the ruck, making markers second guess themselves and always looking for a spot in a line that might be a little crooked and using his explosive speed to run at it.

Two great examples are Harry Grant and Damien Cook. One who may be lesser known is Reece Robson. Reece Robson showed his ability to be an effective dummy half in the six-again era. However, there were many occasions he wasn’t backed up, and on the occasions that he was, the Cowboys often created points.

With pace in names such as Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Valentine Holmes and Scott Drinkwater, the Cowboys are well equipped to take advantage of the new rules if they can back up their talented young dummy half.

Creativity from the forwards
It is well documented that Todd Payten is an advocate for a forward pack with ball-playing ability and creative flair, which we can expect to see from the Cowboys. When he detailed in his fundamental-based approach to pre-season, what he heavily touched on was catch-pass and nailing the basics with the ball.

Mitch Dunn was a five-eighth by trade in his junior years and in the under-20s. His ball play saw him likened to Wade Graham. He could be an asset. Peter Hola is expected to move to the second row from the middle, primarily because of his ball playing.

Fast-paced footy
Todd Payten said the Cowboys need to be faster. In 2020, the Cowboys found themselves struggling to adapt to the new rules.

With the quality of players such as Valentine Holmes, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Reece Robson, Jordan McLean, Jason Taumalolo and Francis Molo, if they can be fit and fast, the Cowboys could improve threefold.

My prediction
The 2021 season needs to be positive for the Cowboys. They need to be able to show that they’ve bottomed out. With a new stadium, new centre of excellence, new management and new coaching staff with a new approach, new principles, new standards and an overhaul in all areas, the Cowboys will be a different side to previous years.

However, they will be relying on injury luck and confidence in many important players. Despite many tipping them for the wooden spoon, 12th is a reasonable prediction for the Cowboys.

Todd Payten’s new philosophies will have an impact, the pathways system will bear fruit for the Cowboys, however Rome was not built in a day and it probably won’t be until next year that the Cowboys become part of the discussion for the finals.

However, they’re building nicely.