North Queensland Cowboys - 2013 Preview
A series of astute offseason signings and the emergence of some promising young talent sees the North Queensland Cowboys looking to push on to new heights in 2013, with experts touting an exciting, if worrying, line - this could be the Cowboys' year.
Unprecedented depth and the rise of not only individual players - the likes of Kane Linnett and Jason Taumalolo to name just two - but the team unit as a whole sees the Cowboys assembling one of their best ever squads for this year. With few losses over the off-season and the re-signing of a number of big names, such as forward leaders James Tamou and Matt Scott, the squad looks well placed to improve on their qualifying finals exit in 2012.
Why they'll win it
For the first time since 2004, the reason the Cowboys will win the title won't be because of their go-to man, Johnathan Thurston. Instead, it'll be down to the man partnering him in the halves. With contenders lining up to show their worth in the esteemed number 7 jersey, it seems halves depth - long a thorn in the side of Cowboys management, has turned itself into a welcome selection headache. Early favourite Robert Lui appears set to justify the NRL lifeline the Cowboys threw him after 2011, whilst hot on his heels is the incumbent Michael Morgan, who showed his potential and flashes of brilliance over the latter half of last year. Ray Thompson has shown he can be a valuable contributor in the halves, while his likely rival for the bench utility position, Anthony Mitchell, produced a fine display playing out of position in one of limited opportunities last year. Fellow hooker Scott Moore, as well as the evergreen Matty Bowen also present playmaking options, forming a formidable spine.
Why they won't
Unlike the sudden halves goldmine, why they won't win it is far too familiar to Cowboys fans. Whilst they can serve up some drubbings on their home patch (now known as 1300SMILES Stadium thanks to a new sponsorship deal) - as the Eels, Raiders and Warriors will testify - and were one of few teams to beat Melbourne in Melbourne, form and ability seems to mean zilch when it comes to playing in Sydney. A 50% record in season 2012 was a huge improvement on recent efforts, but further improvement is still required if the Cowboys want to establish themselves as true premiership heavyweights.
Player to watch - Jason Taumololo
Whilst the obvious choice is whoever gets the nod to partner Thurston in the halves, 2013 looks to be the year of a different JT - Jason Taumalolo. Still eligible for the U20s competition, Taumalolo spent the majority of last year in first grade and now has 21 matches to his credit. Used mainly as an impact front-rower last year where his powerful hitups ensured the intensity was sustained, 'JT3' showed glimpses of his true brilliance when allowed to run wider, at times skittling defenders with consummate ease. Whilst some defensive issues remain, early signs indicate that he will be taking on an even bigger role in 2013.
Rookies to watch - Curtis Rona, Blake Leary and Chris Grevsmuhl
The depth available to Cowboys management is the best it has been in years, with the likes of Clint Greenshields and Kalifa Fai Fai Loa (fullback/outside backs), Michael Morgan and Ray Thompson (halves/hooker) and Ricky Thorby and Scott Bolton (forwards) likely to run out for feeder sides Northern Pride and Mackay Cutters. However, off-season signing Curtis Rona has been given every chance to stake his claim as a candidate for a backline spot, potentially at the expense of Antonio Winterstein, whilst Blake Leary and Chris Grevsmuhl are versatile backrowers who will be looking to overcome the embarrassment of riches the Cowboys possess in that area.
Gains: Clint Greenshields (fullback; Catalan Dragons), Rory Kostjasyn (backrow/utility; Melbourne Storm), Anthony Mitchell (hooker; Sydney Roosters midseason), Scott Moore (hooker; Huddersfield Giants), Curtis Rona (centre; Sydney Roosters)
Losses: Dane Hogan (backrow; Easts Tigers), Moses Pangai (outside back; Penrith Panthers), Cory Paterson (backrow; Hull KR), Aaron Payne (hooker; retirement), James Segeyaro (hooker; Penrith Panthers)
1. Matthew 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. Scott Moore 10 .James Tamou 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Tariq Sims 13. Dallas Johnson
Interchange: 14. Anthony Mitchell 15. Jason Taumalolo 16. Ashton Sims 17. Glenn Hall