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In the club's fourth year under coach Neil Henry, the time has come for the North Queensland Cowboys to revisit the heights they reached during the mid-2000's. After three years in the doldrums, 2011 saw the Cowboys bounce back after some astute work in the transfer market.
Comparatively, the club enters season 2012 with minimal change. Kane Linnett joins the Cowboys from the Sydney Roosters to replace Willie Tonga, while Robert Lui is a late arrival in the halves. Though changes to playmaking combinations can have a destabilising effect, but patient fans will be hoping the opposite occurs in the case of Lui potentially teaming up with Johnathan Thurston.
If Lui establishes himself at halfback, Thurston could have his biggest season yet.
Coach Neil Henry has insisted that the incumbent five-eighth Ray Thompson will retain his spot in the halves after a strong showing in 2011, but with his experience alongside Benji Marshall at the Wests Tigers it appears unlikely that Lui will be left out of the starting lineup for long. Michael Morgan also seems to be firmly in the frame for consideration.
Aaron Payne's may shape as a key factor in deciding the makeup of the halves. The Cowboys' fortunes are closely tied to the form of Payne, so if he struggles to find the form that has eluded him for a few seasons now, Neil Henry will be forced to give James Segayaro a starting role.
This will lengthen potential teething problems early in the year for the Cowboys as they look to settle on a stable lineup in the 1, 6, 7 and 9 jerseys. But the long term benefits will make all the difference. Johnathan Thurston can potentially lighten his workload at second receiver and save his best football for September. The post-Origin period is where the side has struggled in previous years, so if they make the eight and are firing on all cylinders, the Cowboys will be a serious force in the finals.
Also in Neil Henry's favour is an unchanged forward pack. Matt Scott has genuinely come of age and it wouldn't be a stretch to compare him to Shane Webcke at his best. He leads a forward pack with a great mix of experience (Dallas Johnson, Glenn Hall, Gavin Cooper, Ashton Sims) and youth (James Tamou, Tariq Sims, James Taumalolo).
If the Cowboys manage to take what they've got on paper and gel on the field, they will fear nobody. As always, the risk of Thurston getting injured is going to be in the back of the minds of both Cowboys fans and fantasy football fanatics alike. But injury fears aside, the Cowboys have got a formula for success in 2012.
Why they'll win it
The boost in halves depth and experience will allow Johnathan Thurston to take the occasional back seat. This will put a spring in his step as September rolls around. Fresh and in form, Thurston easily has the talent to lead the Cowboys to an inaugural premiership. And with Brent Tate and Matt Bowen holding mortgages on their spots in the backline, the battle for the remaining three places between Antonio Winterstein, Ashley Graham, Kalifa Fai-Fai Loa and Kane Linnett will see all four players produce their best form.
Why they won't win it
Johnathan Thurston might get injured.
Player to watch
Tariq Sims, without a doubt. Had a breakthrough season in 2011 which could have arguably catapulted him into the frame for Australian selection in the Four Nations if it wasn't for a horror leg break. If he recaptures that form, he will certainly be in line for NSW selection.
Rookie to watch
Jason Taumalolo. Winner of the RLPA's Toyota Cup player of the year award in 2011, Taumalolo has already starred for the Junior Kiwis. He's also had a taste of NRL football and proven he can cut it, putting in a stellar performance against Cronulla in round 25 last year, scoring two tries. Taumololo could be the next Sonny Bill Williams.
Gains: Robert Lui (Wests Tigers), Kane Linnett (Sydney Roosters), Luke Harlen (Northern Pride), Ethan Lowe (Sydney Roosters), Chad Grintell (Mackay Cutters), Sam Hoare & Moses Pangai (promoted from Toyota Cup)
Losses: Leeson Ah Mau (St. George/Illawarra), Willie Tonga (Parramatta Eels), Michael Bani (Canberra Raiders), Dylan Smith (Mackay Cutters), Shannon Gallant (Illawarra Comp), Will Tupou (Rugby Union), Isaak Ah Mau (Out of contract), Clint Amos (Retired)
1. Matt Bowen 2. Ashley Graham 3. Brent Tate 4. Kane Linnett 5. Antonio Winterstein 6. Johnathan Thurston (c) 7. Robert Lui 8. Matt Scott (c) 9. Aaron Payne 10. James Tamou 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Glenn Hall 13. Dallas Johnson
Interchange: 14. James Segeyaro 15. Scott Bolton 16. Tariq Sims 17. Cory Paterson