2013 was a disappointing year for the North Queensland side, as while they finished 8th and were eliminated under nefarious circumstances by the Cronulla Sharks in week one. The journey to that finals series was paved with inconsistency.
They started the year with a 24-12 victory over Canterbury before succumbing to three straight losses which was a tone that underlined their year before they turned the corner in Round 21. They shocked South Sydney 30 points 12 leading to a run of six straight victories which helped them to sneak into the finals series.
In contrast – this season has started on a positive note already for the Cowboys as they were crowned the inaugural Auckland 9s champions getting one over local rivals Brisbane in the final. Like 2013, North Queensland will be tipped for the top four once again with rookie coach Paul Green taking the reigns from Neill Henry.
Looking at their squad despite the retirements of stalwarts Matthew Bowen, Ashley Graham and Dallas Johnson has improved from it's 2013 iteration. They have retained the majority of the forward pack that terrorised teams last season with exciting prospects Curtis Rona, Kyle Feldt and Zac Santo as prospects for the backline.
Cameron King will add depth to the hooking ranks while Matthew Wright will do the same for the backline. It is a shame for the Cowboys that Lachlan Coote hurt himself at the Auckland 9s as he would have started in the custodian role.
Where they will win it?
North Queensland got a taste of finals football in 2013 and will be determined to give it a larger shake this season. Johnathan Thurston will be the herder leading around the massive forward pack including representative players Matt Scott and James Tamou plus monsters Jason Taumalolo and Joel Reithmuller who can run over people and produce silky offloads.
Where they will struggle?
Simply travelling. North Queensland will have to arrest the alarming statistic of a poor record when leaving the sunshine state (5-8 in 2013). If the Cowboys can win half of the games they play away including those within QLD they will be on track to make the top four and getting home advantage which can be a massive boon in the finals.
Can it be anyone else than Johnathan Thurston? The five-eighth was once again the focal point of attack for the Cowboys, everything went through him... which worked well when things were clicking, but was a source of frustration for the Australia and Queensland representative in 2013. If injuries are kind to the Cowboys in 2014 and he can link up with Ray Thompson and his halfback in the majority of games, Thurston will double his try assists (nine in 2013) and be the key to a top four berth.
North Queensland has started to bring through the young crop of NYC players which led them to a grand final berth against the Warriors in 2012. The one to look out for has already produced a highlight reel moment at the Auckland 9s – Kyle Feldt. The winger produced a magic put down and will look to provide the finishing role that Ashley Graham filled for last eight seasons there.
The Big plays
Can the North Queensland Cowboys stay fit during the season? They used 30 players throughout the 2013 season equal third highest of all sixteen clubs. Will Paul Green be able to repeat the success of Michael Maguire or Trent Robinson in their first season? Can the North Queensland learn to travel without homesick and improve their dismal away record?
Possible Round 1 Side (v Canberra Raiders)
1. Zac Santo/Matthew Wright 2. Antonio Winterstein 3. Brent Tate 4. Kane Linnett 5. Kyle Feldt 6. Johnathan Thurston (c) 7. Michael Morgan 8. James Tamou 9. Cameron King 10. Matt Scott © 11. Tariq Sims 12. Gavin Cooper 13.Joel Riethmuller
Interchange: 14. Ashton Sims 15. Jason Taumalolo16. Ethan Lowe 17. Ray Thompson