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Thanks to a jump from 15th to 7th on the ladder, 2011 will be regarded as a successful year for the North Queensland Cowboys. The vast improvement for the side comes on the back of astute work in the transfer market during an otherwise forgettable 2010. The arrival of Dallas Johnson, who lost none of his quality after a stay in France, and the return of Gavin Cooper restored some much-needed starch in the Cowboys forward pack, giving the likes of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen a more solid platform in attack.
There are plenty of other positives to draw from 2011 as well. Matt Scott continued to improve which was no doubt helped by his elevation to co-captain. In Thurston's 5-game injury absence following State of Origin, the Cowboys won three and lost two - the same two games in which Matt Scott was also unavailable. Finally, it seems, the Cowboys have replaced the void that was left in their forward pack after Paul Rauhihi's departure in 2005.
The experience and ever-presence of Matt Bowen, Ashley Graham and Dallas Johnson further underscored the improvement in the Cowboys this season. Kalifa Fai-Fai Loa, Tariq Sims and James Segeyaro have all been genuinely exciting to watch, while Ray Thompson has worked hard all year. The Cowboys will be much better for him having his first full NRL season behind him.
New signing Tariq Sims was particularly impressive. Before a horror leg break which occurred in round 25 against the Sharks, Sims turned in a number of eye-catching performances in the back row. Had he not been injured, he would have been a certainty to join the Australian train-on squad. Provided he is able to recover well, he is sure to be a strong contender for the NSW side in 2012.
However despite the positive outlook, the wash-up will again show that the fortunes of the side continue to revolve largely around the form and availability of Thurston. While the side fared well during a 5-game injury absence for the co-captain, the expectations surrounding his return had a somewhat destabilising effect to the side's momentum and they never quite managed to get into gear in time for finals football. The Cowboys saved their worst 40 minutes of their year for the second half of a must-win finals match, which will no doubt hang in the minds of the players throughout the long off-season.
Overall, this year will be remembered as the season the Cowboys successfully re-established themselves as genuine top eight contenders. Should Johnathan Thurston regain the sort of form he showed in the first few months of 2011, and stay fit through the Origin period, a top four finish with a strong finals showing is a certainty in 2012.
Robert Lui (Wests Tigers): A decorated junior who originally hails from Townsville. The 21-year-old already has 43 first grade games under his belt, and has served his NRL apprenticeship in the halves alongside Benji Marshall.
Kane Linnett (Roosters): Very capable 22 year-old product of the Illawarra district who plays in the wing/centres. He stands 192cm tall and weighs a solid 96kg.
Luke Harlen (Northern Pride): Another native of Townsville, returning to the Cowboys after a stint with the Northern Pride in Cairns. At 189cm and a trim 99kg, he is a mobile forward.
The club has also called up the following two players from the NYC squad, who will serve their apprenticeship under the first team's co-captains Johnathan Thurston and Matthew Scott:
Michael Parker-Walshe: A prolific try-scoring five-eighth. He was instrumental in steering the Cowboys under-20's to a grand final berth in 2011.
Sam Hoare: Standing an impressive 193cm, this young Rockhampton prop has spent the latter part of 2011 recovering from a knee injury. He is set to add plenty to the Cowboys forward stocks in 2012.
Matt Bowen: Despite speculation for a large portion of the season that he may be going to England, the Cowboys have retained the services of their fan favourite and key playmaker.
Tariq Sims: Was quickly re-signed after he demonstrated what he's capable of, courtesy of some blistering performances that made those watching sit up and take notice.
Aaron Payne and Joel Reithmuller have also been resigned.
Leeson Ah Mau (St George/Illawarra)
Willie Tonga (Parramatta)
Will Tupou (Super 15 Rugby)
Isaak Ah Mau, Michael Bani, Shannon Gallant, Dylan Smith (out of contract)
Best lineup for 2012
The biggest question marks for the 2012 side are placed on the back row. With the mid-season signing of talented ball-player Cory Paterson, along with the emergence of Tariq Sims and upcoming Jason Taumalolo, the side is flush with choice both in the pack and on the bench. I have nominated Paterson for his ball-playing skills, and left Sims on the bench for impact, but this all depends largely on consistency. Expect Scott Bolton to move into the front row rotation.
In the backline, the pre-season trials may be used to help determine who gets first crack at the other centre spot. The race is between new signing Kane Linnett and Antonio Winterstein, with Linnett perhaps holding the edge thanks to his size.
1. Matt Bowen 2. Ashley Graham 3. Brent Tate 4. Kane Linnett 5. Kalifa Fai-Fai Loa 6. Johnathan Thurston (c) 7. Robert Lui 8. Matt Scott (c) 9. Aaron Payne 10. James Tamou 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Cory Paterson 13. Dallas Johnson
Interchange: 14. James Segeyaro 15. Scott Bolton 16. Tariq Sims 17. Jason Taumalolo