2021 Review: North Queensland Cowboys

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Change or be left behind

It's unlikely that Bruce Springsteen had Townsville in mind when penning Atlantic City.

As one of the greatest songs from a great storyteller, the album highlight from Nebraska sees The Boss portraying a vivid picture of regret and impending destruction, set against the backdrop of a world in the midst of change.

As a club in denial, wilfully clinging to past glories, at a time when rugby league is evolving at the pace of a runaway train, North Queensland coach Todd Payten likely finds resonance in Springsteen's words.

"Everything dies, baby, that's a fact / But maybe everything that dies some day comes back."

Having won a premiership (and come within 80 minutes of another) with an engrossing style of play built around two men bearing the initials "JT", the Cowboys are only now coming to terms with uncomfortable truths.

On-field success is over - and without significant changes, it's not coming back.

Finishing 2021 with the worst defensive record in the league, the appointment of Payten was heralded as a necessary move to bring about a changing of the guard.

Putting his squad on notice by singling out Jason Taumalolo, his captain and highest profile player, after an enervating opening round performance, Payten's intention of holding everyone to account, irrespective of reputation, made for a brutal opening month.

Belatedly getting a desired response with six wins from eight matches in the run up to Origin, a well-intentioned move to bring Brisbane playmaker Tom Dearden back north turned disastrous, as the side slumped to a single win over the final twelve rounds.

In the wash up, the 15th placed finish was the side's worst season performance in over a decade.

It's hard to pinpoint the exact moment where things unravelled for the Cowboys; in the three years since Johnathan Thurston called time on his illustrious career, the side has managed a dismal 31 per cent success rate with 21 wins from 68 matches.

Todd Payten has staked his reputation on letting go of the past in order to return the club to something great.

It remains to be seen whether his players are willing to change with him.

Turning Point

When reflecting on 2021, in retrospect, it's hard to fathom how the Cowboys ever sat in seventh position midway through the year.

Gaining traction as finals contenders with wins over the Tigers (34-30), Bulldogs (30-18), Raiders (26-24), Broncos (19-18), Knights (36-20) and Warriors (29-28) throughout April and May, at the same time, significant decisions regarding recruitment were taking place behind the scenes.

Identifying the need to strengthen depth in the halves following the forced retirement of Michael Morgan and Jake Clifford announcing a move to Newcastle for 2022, the club saw a future in premiership winner Chad Townsend, signed on a massive pay day, and star junior Tom Dearden.

Things were going well on the field with the side sitting in seventh position, but when the opportunity for a mid-season swap arose - the Cowboys granting Clifford an early release while allowing the Broncos to get Dearden off their books early - the results proved dire.

Having been hyped as the next big thing since coming into grade as a teenager, the consequences of playing with a team accustomed to losing led Dearden to experience an arrested first grade development.

Parachuting Dearden, an unproven performer with an 18 per cent success rate, into the side may have sounded good on paper, but, with the benefit of hindsight, it served as the death knell for the Cowboys season.

What worked

In a year that offered few reasons for North Queensland supporters to celebrate, the Cowboys stood up on home soil more often than not.

Claiming the bulk of their victories at Queensland Country Bank Stadium, the support of the Townsville faithful inspired comeback wins against Canberra (26-24), Brisbane (19-18) and New Zealand (29-28) during the side's fleeting period of success.

The newly constructed venue, which had the distinction of hosting the opening State of Origin fixture, also played host to gallant defeats against premiership heavyweights Sydney (18-34) and Melbourne (16-20).

What didn't work

Many coaches have watched their careers fall by the wayside due to a lack of ambition and audacity.

From his first match in charge of the Cowboys, it became clear that Todd Payten was willing to stake his reputation with big calls.

Unfortunately, as the former Warriors' interim quickly learned, big calls can have big consequences.

Openly taking aim at the effort of Jason Taumalolo, in a bid to raise the standards that had withered away in the final years of Paul Green's tenure, the harsh truths were met with resistance and, in some cases, outright refusal.

Cutting ties with former representative stars Josh McGuire and Esan Marsters, both of whom jumped ship less than two months into the season, front-rower Francis Molo, who earned an unexpected call-up for Queensland, decided his future lay elsewhere beyond 2021.

Most damningly, the decision to limit Taumalolo's time on the field rendered the star forward inert and a late season move to the edge lasted one week following a dismal showing on the Gold Coast.

While Payten's desire to raise standards and preserve his star forward made sense for the long-term interests of the club, the immediate results only served to heighten the issues that had been festering for years.

Best player

In the years before Johnathan Thurston transformed the Cowboys into a competitive squad, the club's shining light was a fleet-footed speedster named Matt Bowen.

Possessing electrifying pace and capable of feats of instinctive brilliance, the outside back, who made a name at fullback, gave neutral supporters a reason to pay attention to a club routinely relegated to the graveyard slot on Super Saturday.

Players have shown similar glimpses over the years, however, few have evoked Bowen's spark quite like Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow.

Beginning the year in the centres, which led to a try-scoring debut for Queensland in State of Origin III, the 19-year-old flyer from Cairns finished the year in the number one jersey with eight tries.

Among Tabuai-Fidow's most memorable moments, a chip-and-chase reminiscent of Nathan Blacklock paved the way for an upset at Leichhardt Oval, a dazzling effort on return from injury levelled the scores against the Warriors, and a length-of-the-field run assured victory to break a run of ten losses in the penultimate round.

In a year that saw the Cowboys appear aimless at times, Tabuai-Fidow's brilliance was a much-needed step in the right direction.


Having played ten games over the past two years with little impression, outside back Murray Taulagi enjoyed a breakout campaign with ten tries in 20 matches to earn an upgraded two-year extension.

Of the players blooded by Payten for the first time, impact forward Heilum Luki made the biggest impression to finish the year in the starting side. Wingers Kane Bradley and Laitia Moceidreke both crossed for four-pointers in their first appearances, while debutants Griffin Neame and Ieremia Nanai combined for one of tries of the season during the Round 22 loss to the Tigers.

Looking Ahead

The Cowboys have finished in the bottom four every year since their last finals appearance in 2017.

For a club that dominated the middle third of the 2010s with 67 wins from 109 matches between 2014-17, the fall from grace is only now dawning on the side.

Club management have recognised the need for change by backing Payten to rebuild a tired roster in desperate need of an overhaul.

If the old guard can accept the inevitability of change, maybe, a new era of success can rise again.

Current projected 2022 lineup

as at time of publishing - 21 October 2021

1. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow
2. Kyle Feldt
3. Valentine Holmes
4. Peta Hiku
5. Murray Taulagi
6. Scott Drinkwater
7. Chad Townsend
8. Coen Hess
9. Reece Robson
10. Jordan McLean
11. Mitch Dunn
12. Heilum Luki
13. Jason Taumalolo (C)

14. Daejarn Asi
15. Reuben Cotter
16. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown
17. Tom Gilbert

Keep across 2022 Player Movements for the NRL season across all 16 clubs here.

2021 results

1APenrithL 0 - 24Bluebet14,07715th
2HSt Geo IllaL18 - 25QLD C.B.15,12013th
3HGold CoastL 8 - 44QLD C.B.12,62714th
4ACronullaL10 - 48Netstrata5,11914th
5AWests TigersW34 - 30Leichhardt9,43314th
6HCanterburyW30 - 18QLD C.B.11,96513th
7HCanberraW26 - 24QLD C.B.13,79112th
8AWarriorsL20 - 24Cen. Coast3,69212th
9HBrisbaneW19 - 18QLD C.B.22,22211th
10A NSydneyL16 - 30Suncorp45,12212th
11HNewcastleW36 - 20QLD C.B.11,20810th
12HWarriorsW29 - 28QLD C.B.14,9517th
14AManlyL18 - 504 Pines6,8017th
15HCronullaL24 - 26QLD C.B.13,9269th
16ANewcastleL 0 - 38McD. Jones7,61010th
17A NSouthsL18 - 46McD. Jones3,12712th
18HSydneyL18 - 34QLD C.B.15,93313th
19HMelbourneL16 - 20QLD C.B.14,92413th
20ABrisbaneL18 - 37Suncorp29,13614th
21AGold CoastL14 - 36CBUSNone14th
22HWests TigersL16 - 24QLD C.B.12,66314th
23A NParramattaL16 - 32CBUS3,01315th
24A NSt Geo IllaW38 - 26R'hampton4,48714th
25HManlyL18 - 46QLD C.B.14,33615th

(NOTE - 'N' in H/A column indicates match played at a neutral venue)

2021 Player Record

DRINKWATER, Scott242424-511-42
GRANVILLE, Jake32243214--16
McLEAN, Jordan292424-1--4
ROBSON, Reece232424-6--24
HESS, Coen25221482--8
DUNN, Mitchell24201552--8
FELDT, Kyle292020-12--48
HOLMES, Valentine262020-4542126
TAULAGI, Murray222020-10--40
MOLO, Francis27191091--4
WRIGHT, Shane251616-1--4
BURR, Lachlan28153121--4
TAUMALOLO, Vaai281515-1--4
TABUAI-FIDOW, Hamiso191414-8--32
LEMUELU, Connelly231313-1--4
DEARDEN, Tom201212-6--24
CONDON, Ben2111924--16
GILBERT, Thomas211147----
LUKI, Heilum2011383--12
HAMPTON, Ben2910912--8
BOWEN, Javid2899-3--12
JENSEN, Corey27918----
CLIFFORD, Jake2377-1--4
COTTER, Reuben22633----
ASI, Daejarn21541----
O'NEILL, Justin3055-1--4
McGUIRE, Josh31413----
NANAI, Jeremiah184221--4
HOLA, Peter223-3----
MARSTERS, Esan2533-----
NEAME, Griffin203-3----
BRADLEY, Kane2122-1--4
MORGAN, Michael2922-----
MOCEIDREKE, Laitia2011-1--4

All stats courtesy of RugbyLeagueProject.