I should say from the outset, despite being a rusted-on Cowboys supporter, I had absolutely no faith in the Cowboys way back at the end of the 2017 season.
Their last few games were middling, their season was hanging by a thread and their only hope to compete in the playoffs was the Bulldogs beating the eighth-placed Dragons in the last game of the season. Sometimes in rugby league, even Buckley’s chance is enough, and the Cowboys limped into the finals in eighth position. The rest is history.
However, the more time has passed since their fairytale run to the 2017 NRL grand final where they fell to the all-conquering Melbourne Storm 34-6, the more obvious it has become that the Cowboys were scraping through due to the masterful performances of Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo and that they were papering over fundamental problems with their team.
The 2018 season showed the brittleness of the Cowboy’s continued success. Even future Immortal Johnathan Thurston couldn’t lift them from the cellar. Since then, they have not made the finals, and at the time of writing, are within danger of slipping out the top eight once again. Currently they are in the midst of a woeful nosedive in form that began last week with a half-century capitulation against a Turbo-less Manly Sea Eagles, and continued with an inconsistent effort against the Sharks, with 70 so-so minutes and ten minutes of frenetic mayhem kicked off by a Kyle Feldt double in two sets.
While some might be upset about the late Reece Robson sin bin, it should never have come down to the final two minutes at all. The Cowboys were caught out on the fifth so many times in the Sharks’ red zone that the team should be visited by the Count from Sesame Street during review next week.
Where do the Cowboys haphazard performances and results originate? Some fans might argue the long hangover from Paul Green’s coaching is still running in the team’s veins, and that does ring true. Just like winning can become a habit, a losing streak can become just as hard to break, and three seasons of mediocrity will take more than half a season to overcome. The selection of Todd Payten as head coach will hopefully reap benefits further down the track, as long as the board doesn’t adopt a Game of Thrones approach to organisational hiring practices.
I’m not the first observer to bring up the Cowboys’ poor player retention and recruitment, and I likely won’t be the last either. Some of their losses over the years, from frustrating but understandable junior swipes like Kalyn Ponga to the Knights or Viliame Kikau to the Panthers, to headscratchers like throwing away Lachlan Coote in favour of Ben Barba, add up to serious and entrenched mismanagement of their roster, that stretch all the way back to their premiership-winning team.
While some players ought to have been re-signed, many should not have been, or at least not for as long.
The Ben Barba saga was a particularly galling situation, entirely of the Cowboys’ own making. While it’s true that Barba was a quality player, winning the Man of Steel award in Super League, given his torrid off-field behaviour signing him was always going to be a risky proposition. It was clear throughout that they had one eye on Valentine Holmes for fullback from 2020 onwards once he returned from the United States, which is why Barba was only signed for a single year. Before he even played a single game, his contract was torn up after a domestic violence incident on Australia Day, and the Cowboys were left high and dry without their star signing. It was an entirely avoidable outcome that they walked into with their eyes open.
That being said, some of the Cowboys’ problems can be put down to just plain old bad luck, especially in the halves. Michael Morgan may have become a club stalwart if not for a career-ending shoulder injury, but we’ll never know. Te Maire Martin was shaping as a promising foil for Morgan before a bleed on his brain put an end to his playing days.
A point often brought up is the list of promising Cowboys NYC players who left the club for one reason or another, and how the team’s fortunes might be different if they’d been retained. Viliame Kikau, Kalyn Ponga and Jahrome Hughes are the big names brought into the conversation, among others.
Storm and New Zealand international hooker Brandon Smith is another fish let through the net, as he explains on a recent ‘Bloke in a Bar’ podcast, “I would’ve stayed maybe, if they offered me a three-year contract, but they only wanted to give me a two-year contract…I wanted the security of a three year [contract]”, which the Storm were more than happy to oblige.
The rewards of that choice for both Smith and the Storm are evident in their 2020 premiership and current number one ladder position. A crystal ball with a view to the future would be helpful, but until then, bets on whether to sign a player or not will remain a high-stakes guessing game.
However, it needs to also be acknowledged that clubs lose promising juniors all the time, and sometimes through no fault of their own. I find it doubtful that Ponga would have stayed even if the Cowboys had been more aggressive in their pursuit of his signature, let alone if they were able to table an offer to rival that offered by the Knights.
Would Ponga have changed the form of the whole team? Probably not. He would still be playing with the same tired Paul Green game plan, training within the same strained atmosphere, forced to cover for poor middle defence from the same forward pack. If anything, Ponga would be brought down to the Cowboys’ level, rather than him lifting the team’s fortunes. For what it’s worth, I think he made the right choice to defect to Newcastle.
The disappointing thing is that these roster errors, whether foreseeable or unforeseeable, may not have finished yet. Going from not enough quality halves to too many, with Scott Drinkwater, Chad Townsend and Tom Dearden all signed on multi-year contracts, is another potential unforced error.
Townsend is a particularly strange choice. A player on his way out at the Sharks, it is hard to see what he will bring to the table besides easy penalties and bad haircuts. Presumably one of these halves will have to play in the Queensland Cup, most likely Drinkwater, but then why did the Cowboys re-sign him after already pulling the trigger on Dearden and Townsend?
The only possibility I can conjure is that Drinkwater remains as injury cover for both fullback and the halves, but with apparent interest from other clubs like the Broncos where he would hypothetically slot in beside Adam Reynolds in 2022, I find it hard to believe Drinkwater would remain if he believed he would be lining up for the Blackhawks more often than the first-grade team. Time will tell how the Mexican standoff for the six and seven jersey ends, but it is yet another self-induced headache piled on top of all the others.
Where does all this leave the Cowboys? While they remain in the eight at the time of writing, a dreadful for-and-against and threats from lower teams such as the Dragons, Warriors and Tigers mean that unless their drop in form is arrested they will be relegated to a fourth consecutive Mad Monday.
At the start of the season, their performances were absolutely pitiful, and it appeared as though all 13 players had never met each other before running out onto the field. While cohesion is building, it isn’t coming fast enough for long-suffering Cowboys fans, watching their favourite team go down once again at their shiny new home stadium. North Queensland’s dark days might be winding down, but the end is not yet in sight.