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Smart Signings: The Cowboys spine is nearly perfect - but they need to get Chad's replacement right

21st November, 2023
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21st November, 2023
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With the Finals over and the November 1 contract deadline passed, we can officially declare the NRL’s silly season open.

Into the morass of gossip and conjecture, we will bring sanity, with the relaunch of Smart Signings, our dissection of where clubs are weak, what they need to improve and where they might find it. Expect stats, profiles and insights, with options that are available and realistic. Don’t expect rumours.

It was a tough time being a Cowboys fan in 2023. It’s the hope that kills you, of course, and after a superb 2022, the Townsville club landed with a bump.

Todd Payten had been voted the Dally M Coach of the Year, and rightly so, given the way he improved the defence and turned North Queensland into one of the toughest teams to beat in the comp.

Sometimes that came at the expense of flair – which is what ultimately did for them in the finals – but it seemed like a great jumping off point going into 2023.

But, as suddenly as they had risen, his side lost all of the starch that made them so good in the first place. 

The opening half of the season saw them go 6-8 before their first bye, including losses to the Bulldogs, Dolphins and Tigers, all of whom would end up well out of the Finals, with that defeat to Wests being a 66-18 humbling.

Things did get better through Origin, with a five game win streak, but it all proved too little too late. 

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By the end, it was fairly obvious to see where things were going wrong – but also where they might later go right.

In 2022, they had benefitted massively from a level of control that Chad Townsend was able to bring, and his short kicking game that unlocked Jeremiah Nanai to score a ridiculous number of tries for a backrower, plenty of which were assisted by his halfback.

In 2023, that stream dried up and with it went plenty of their creativity. The Cowboys were fourth for metres made, but 11th for line breaks and 12th for tackles inside 20m. 

They were able to get into position, but couldn’t breach defences and couldn’t builf pressure. In attack, nowhere near enough questions were being asked.

It might be harsh to single Townsend out for this, but given his age and the performance of the other two creative players in the spine, it’s hard not to see him as the issue.

For reference, his numbers on every key halfback metric outwith kicking trail Brandon Wakeham, who played for the worst attack in the comp and got ten fewer possessions per game, too.

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In fact, if you put Townsend in a group alongside some of his peers in terms of ladder position and game time, it’s pretty damning. 

Lachlan Ilias, who most people think had a bad season, is well ahead in creative metrics and matches well on attacking kicking with the same number of assists from 80 fewer attempts.

Chad is just one of several Cowboys who can speak to other clubs, and one suspects that he will not be renewed beyond this year. Veterans Kyle Feldt and Jake Granville are in a similar boat and James Tamou has already departed.

Also in the November 1 club are Tom Dearden, whom they will certainly want to extend, as they will with Kulikefu Finefeauiaki, who impressed in his first year. Helium Luki has a player option beyond 2024 but would be in hot demand elsewhere.

Coen Hess, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, Zac Laybutt and Semi Valemei, plus rated youngster Tom Chester, off the back of an ACL, and the returning Jake Clifford will all get a chance to prove their case as the season going on.

The length of that list does present Payten with some scope for rejuvenation. Losing the likes of Townsend, Feldt and Granville will do wonders for the salary cap and the age profile at the club, as they are the three of the four oldest on the list, with the extended Jordan McLean in the middle.

It’s an interesting situation, because as much as there are old bodies around – seven of their most regular 17 in 2023 were 30 or over – they also have a host of youngsters, with nine under 24 and a core of rep-level players in the 25-30 bracket. 

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Payten, then, can stick or twist. He knows that Dearden (22), hooker Reece Robson (25), lock Reuben Cotter (24) and fullback Scott Drinkwater (26) are long-term bets, but also experienced heads in his spine, especially if he continues with Jason Taumalolo as a pure middle, as he did late last year.

The option might be to add a young halfback who can grow with the group or a veteran to continue the Townsend role, just with more oomph.

The options available give plenty of scope for that. 

(Photo by Cameron Spencer/Getty Images)

Luke Keary, off contract at the Roosters in 2025, brings far more attacking upside and has proven his ability to work both as an organising half and as a creative outlet.

He’s 11 months younger than Townsend and brings a similar amount of experience, but with much more willingness to engage the line and chance his arm, as well as flexibility across both 6 and 7. 

A combination of the veteran halfback edition of Keary and a run-first approach from Dearden, with extra backline magic from Drinkwater is certainly appealing.

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At the other end of the scale, Toby Sexton just snuck into the Smart Signings sample size with eight games for the Bulldogs in 2023, and he profiles much like Townsend, but with better creative numbers and better running numbers, both accrued off far less ball. 

His kicking was less evident at the Dogs given Matt Burton’s role as the specialist, but was among the best in the league at the Titans, especially close to the line.

Sexton is still only 22 and, though he got a decent run at the end of last year after joining the Dogs, has not been signed up past 2024 and will have to fight for his place. 

If Payten wants to hand the keys over to Dearden and Drinkwater, he could find much worse alternatives as a steady hand.

(Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

There is a third option, too. St Helens halfback Lewis Dodd has been linked with a move to the NRL for a long time, well before kicking the field goal that downed Penrith back in February, and is entering his last year.

He is yet to turn 22 but has over 60 first grade appearances with a highly dominant team in the Super League, from which he has built a solid body of work as a running threat and a creative presence.

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Dodd has achieved plenty already in England and could kick on massively in the NRL, especially if placed in a spine that is already comfortable working together. 

Buying players at 21 from the Super League is inherently risky, as few halves have made it, but Dodd is recognised as one of the best talents of his generation in the UK and, in general, the younger that players get to the NRL the better. 

Sexton is a solid option for 22, with a low ceiling, high floor nature. Dodd might be the opposite. Again, it’s all about what Payten and his recruitment team think this Cowboys team needs.

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