2018 Review: North Queensland Cowboys

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JT's farewell sugarcoats a year of disappointment

The line between benefitting from experience and being past the use by date can often be difficult to recognise during times of success. Many teams have fallen victim to the trap in years gone by; few would have predicted the Gold Coast Titans' preliminary final finish in 2010 being followed by an ignominious wooden spoon twelve months later, while the brief window of joy felt by Newcastle supporters in 2013 in no way validated the pain that was to come. Yet despite precedents serving as cautionary tales for North Queensland to heed, the fairy tale run enjoyed by the Cowboys during the 2017 finals series only served to mask a variety of issues that plagued the side until the damage was too great to overcome.

Beginning the year under the pretence of Johnathan Thurston's farewell season, the legendary halfback's return from major shoulder surgery began promisingly with a win over Cronulla in his 300th game, but as the weeks progressed a succession of losses, seemingly to be unconcerned by, began to reveal the pre-season hype of premiership favouritism was well off the mark. Losing seven of their opening ten matches, calls for coach Paul Green to liven the aging roster were tentatively acknowledged by shifting Michael Morgan to fullback and drafting Junior Kangaroos centre Enari Tuala into the backline, but despite the desperate bid to resuscitate their season, back-to-back one-point losses at home against South Sydney (19-20) and Melbourne (6-7) ensured that the former kings of clutch games were without a hope of pulling off another late surge.

Managing a single win over Manly (26-12) during the representative period to sit barely above Parramatta in 15th position, the realisation that Thurston's days were numbered coupled by the return from injury of representative props Matt Scott and Jordan McLean resulted in a run of form in line with initial expectations. Snatching last-gasp wins over Newcastle (20-18) and Brisbane (34-30) with Thurston featuring prominently, a similar late season form reversal from the Eels set up a penultimate round ‘Spoon Bowl' showdown in a match serving as JT's farewell to Townsville. Blowing the Eels off the park with a near-flawless first half showing, the 44-6 demolition ensured the Cowboys avoided their first wooden spoon since 2000, while a final hurrah on the Gold Coast the following week allowed the side to put a positive spin on a bitterly disappointing 13th-placed finish.

Turning point

In the previous four years of Paul Green's North Queensland tenure, few sides excelled at going the distance (or beyond) in order to secure two competition points. With the most enduring image of the club's success coming by way of an extra-time field goal in the 2015 grand final, the two matches played in the space of six days against South Sydney and Melbourne at 1300SMILES Stadium epitomised the Cowboys' decline in quality. Producing two of the better performances seen by losing teams in recent times, the consecutive one-point losses left the side shattered at seemingly doing enough to triumph in years gone by, yet falling short with a largely similar roster.

What worked

Forced to play large portions of the season without several established stars, the form shown later in the year highlighted what could have been with a fully fit and firing roster. Unable to draw upon marquee recruit Jordan McLean for more than half the year due to a serious foot injury, the former Melbourne prop managed just ten appearances for his new club, but played a key role in helping the side to five of their eight total wins. Similarly, the prolific combination between Thurston and Gavin Cooper produced 13 tries, including a record nine-match streak - the most consecutive four-pointers scored by a forward in premiership history.

What didn't

While Fox Sports commentator Greg Alexander drew the ire of many supporters for having the audacity to suggest Johnathan Thurston had played one season too many following the Cowboys' poor start to 2018, the familiarity of the playing group as a whole contributed to the side's lacklustre showing. With Paul Green torn between backing the players who served him so well in the past and needing to inject youthful exuberance into the squad, the underwhelming performances of multiple backline mainstays in addition to the lack of forward support for Jason Taumalolo routinely saw the side finish on the wrong side of the scoreboard. Adding to their woes, the form of Dally M runner-up Kalyn Ponga at Newcastle magnified the decision to allow the budding superstar to leave - in hindsight the move may prove as costly for North Queensland as Johnathan Thurston's departure was for Canterbury.

Best Players

In a side packed with representative credentials and big match experience, very few of the Cowboys performed at a standard befitting their reputations. With the majority of outside backs especially coming up short, particularly in the try-scoring stakes, the lone exception proved to be speedster Kyle Feldt. Finding the line 14 times including a hat-trick in the late season demolition of Parramatta, the 26-year-old Queenslander maintained a consistent standard of form good enough to warrant a representative debut, with only the embarrassment of riches throughout the Maroons' backline stocks preventing a deserved call-up. With goal-kicking set to be an area in need of address following Thurston's retirement, Feldt enhanced his credentials by nailing a penalty goal against Brisbane from over halfway late in the season.

Rookies

With Paul Green opting for the tried-and-true far too often throughout 2018, the emergence of several young talents provided signs of promise amid the below-par showings from the side's established stars. Having tasted first grade briefly last year, Enari Tuala and Gideon Gela-Mosby put forward convincing cases to begin next season in the starting backline following the departures of Kane Linnett and Antonio Winterstein, while despite featuring in just two appearances respectively, Mitchell Dunn and Shane Wright showed glimpses of further improvement with another off-season to develop. Having been afforded the good fortune of beginning his career as a first grade playmaker during the closing stages of arguably the game's greatest, incumbent NYC Player of the Year Jake Clifford consistently grew in confidence throughout his six game stint to give supporters solace for life after JT.

Feeder club round-up

Fielding three teams in the Intrust Super Cup, the regular season heights enjoyed by the Townsville Blackhawks (3rd) and Northern Pride (4th) failed to translate at the business end of year with first week exits against Ipswich and Easts respectively. While the disappointment of squandering a shot at the title provided a hollow distraction from the first grade team's shortcomings, the wooden spoon finish 'achieved' by the Mackay Cutters (14th) left North Queensland officials more than happy to look forward to 2019.

In the Under 20's it was a similar story with the Blackhawks (minor premiers) and Pride (3rd) qualifying for the Hastings Deering Colts finals series - the Townsville side knocking out their Cairns-based counterparts in the preliminary final before falling to the Norths Devils on Grand Final Day. Mackay finished outside the eight in 11th place.

2019 Chances

Having lost one of the greatest players to ever grace a rugby league field with his presence, the form shown by Michael Morgan during the 2017 finals series will need to come to the fore on a weekly basis to return North Queensland to the play-offs. With recently appointed Man of Steel Ben Barba returning to the NRL, the superstar fullback will also have a point to prove, but whether the side's forwards can stay healthy will determine whether life without JT proves successful for the Cowboys.

Best lineup for next season

(based on current signings)

1. Ben Barba
2. Kyle Feldt
3. Enari Tuala
4. Nene MacDonald
5. Gideon Gela-Mosby
6. Te Maire Martin
7. Michael Morgan
8. Matt Scott (C)
9. Jake Granville
10. Jordan McLean
11. Gavin Cooper
12. Coen Hess
13. Jason Taumalolo

14. Jake Clifford
15. John Asiata
16. Scott Bolton
17. Ethan Lowe

2018 Results

1
North Queensland Cowboys 20
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 14
W
2
Brisbane Broncos 24
North Queensland Cowboys 20
L
3
Melbourne Storm 30
North Queensland Cowboys 14
L
4
North Queensland Cowboys 14
Penrith Panthers 33
L
5
Warriors 22
North Queensland Cowboys 12
L
6
North Queensland Cowboys 10
Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs 27
L
7
North Queensland Cowboys 26
Gold Coast Titans 14
W
8
North Queensland Cowboys 8
Canberra Raiders 18
L
9
Penrith Panthers 20
North Queensland Cowboys 26
W
10
Wests Tigers 20
North Queensland Cowboys 12
L
11
North Queensland Cowboys 19
South Sydney Rabbitohs 20
L
12
North Queensland Cowboys 6
Melbourne Storm 7
L
13
Manly-Warringah Sea Eagles 12
North Queensland Cowboys 26
W
14
Parramatta Eels 20
North Queensland Cowboys 14
L
15
North Queensland Cowboys 16
Warriors 23
L
16
South Sydney Rabbitohs 21
North Queensland Cowboys 20
L
17
North Queensland Cowboys 0
BYE
18
Canberra Raiders 38
North Queensland Cowboys 12
L
19
North Queensland Cowboys 10
St George Illawarra Dragons 24
L
20
North Queensland Cowboys 20
Newcastle Knights 18
W
21
Sydney Roosters 26
North Queensland Cowboys 20
L
22
North Queensland Cowboys 34
Brisbane Broncos 30
W
23
Cronulla-Sutherland Sharks 28
North Queensland Cowboys 16
L
24
North Queensland Cowboys 44
Parramatta Eels 6
W
25
Gold Coast Titans 26
North Queensland Cowboys 30
W

By the Stats

18
Competition Points
8
Matches Won
0
Matches Drawn
16
Matches Lost
449
Points Scored
521
Points Conceded