2022 review: North Queensland Cowboys

COMP NRL
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Nobody could have predicted that the 2022 North Queensland Cowboys would go down as the most improved Cowboys side in history.

They became only the fourth NRL side this century to improve on their number of regular season wins by 10 or more over the previous year, which culminated in a narrow Preliminary Final defeat to the Eels.

Head coach Todd Payten, who deservedly won the Dally M Coach of the Year award, had spent the off-season working heavily on conditioning and defense, and this showed immediately. Despite an opening loss against the Bulldogs, the Cowboys quickly put up a couple of big wins against the Raiders and Broncos, and after three games they'd conceded just 24 points. By the same point in the previous year, that number was 93.

The promising start hit a snag in round 4. A knee injury to fullback Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, three sin-bins and the apparent failure of trying Jason Taumalolo in the front row compounded coach Payten's frustration at the referees in a heavy loss against the Roosters. It was a low point during which he infamously suggested match officials were favouring the bigger sides in 50/50 calls.

The following week, he brought playmaker Scott Drinkwater back to first grade in the fullback position, and handed Reuben Cotter, previously a utility hooker/lock, his first ever start in the front row.

While the Cowboys went down in golden point against the Warriors in round 5, Payten stuck with the changes. The team responded in style, and Scott Drinkwater started to strike a chord with the new halves combination. The Cowboys went on to stun the rugby league world with a vicious six match winning streak, including 30+ point demolitions of contenders the Parramatta Eels and Melbourne Storm.

The run was brought to a halt at the home of eventual premiers Penrith, the Cowboys' first game in Sydney all year, and they also lost a few weeks later to the vastly improved Sharks. But not even being ransacked by Origin selectors was enough to prevent North QLD surging to second on the ladder by round 21.

Two more losses in late round visits to Sydney against the Roosters and Rabbitohs resulted in the side dropping to third, costing a home final against Cronulla. But after a stunning display of attacking football by both sides, the Cowboys had enough left in the tank to get home after golden point extra time.

Even with the benefit of a week off before their preliminary final against the Eels, they didn't quite have the finishing quality they needed to prevent Parramatta from securing a grand final spot.

Coach Todd Payten felt nothing but pride for the efforts of his team and refused to take the bait of journalists questioning a Mitchell Moses forward pass that led to a try in the first half. "It happened early enough in the game for us to get over it," he said, and acknowledged the Eels were too good on the night. The key takeaway was clear. In 2022, the Cowboys had "put some respect back into the place."

Turning point

The Cowboys could look to several factors that played a role in their unexpected success: Chad Townsend filling the gaping hole left by Michael Morgan's retirement in 2021 due to chronic shoulder injuries; better off-season conditioning along with a tremendous attitude and commitment in defense; Payten coming to grips with Taumalolo's role in the side in the lock position; the likes of Tom Deardon, Reuben Cotter and Jeremiah Nanai exploding into the Queensland State of Origin side on the back of their early season success.

But it was the knee injury of Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow against the Roosters that changed everything. Scott Drinkwater was brought in as a stopgap, but he was so good that the "Hammer" never made it back to his preferred position, to the point that he eventually signed for newcomers Redcliffe for 2023. For the Cowboys, as fast and exciting as the Hammer was, Drinkwater's playmaking skills provided them with an extra dimension in attack, combining perfectly with the likes of Dearden, Townsend and Reece Robson in dummy half. While the improvements in other areas would have probably resulted in the Cowboys still finding success and reaching the top 8, it was Drinkwater's form that elevated them to an elusive top 4 status.

What worked

The Cowboys' stars aligned in 2022 in a way that may not quite happen to the same degree again. It was technically injuries that got the side where it needed to be, but most importantly, it was the lack of injuries that kept them there. They weren't completely without misfortune - Mitch Dunn and Heilum Luki both copped season-ending knee injuries - but overall, they fared much better than they had in previous seasons and were able to keep the core of their starting side on the field. Not even a ruptured testicle suffered by five-eighth Tommy Dearden was enough to keep him out of action for more than a week.

The icing on the cake for the Cowboys' success was the overall play of Chad Townsend. The former Shark brought his experience, composure and leadership with him and was an ironman for the side, He not only played in all 26 games, but also managed to average over 80 minutes per game with the help of golden point extra time efforts against the Warriors and Sharks.

Townsend was also not being considered for Origin selection, helping guide them through when they were under strength. He also took some of the pressures of captaincy duties off Jason Taumalolo, and their co-leadership worked a charm on the field.

What didn't work

After the drama between Payten and Taumalolo in 2021, Cowboys fans were sceptical to see him named in the front row early in the season. Whatever it was that the coach saw in shifting the big fella, it just wasn't working. Fans breathed a sigh of relief to see him reverted to his favoured number 13 before too long.

Coach Todd Payten's also failed to solve the puzzle of where to put Tabuai-Fidow after he returned from injury. The Hammer was left mostly on the bench with a few appearances covering outside back positions, and ultimately, he was frustrated into accepting an offer to go to the Dolphins in 2023. As successful and encouraging as this season has been for Cowboys fans, it will no doubt sting to see their former rising star sporting the colours of another team. Payten's failure to find him a place could become a major source of regret in the future.

2022 results

RndDateDayOppositionVenueCrowdRank
1Mar 13thSun 6:15pmHCanterburyL4-6QLD C.B.12,6409th
2Mar 19thSat 7:30pmHCanberraW26-6QLD C.B.13,8645th
3Mar 27thSun 4:00pmABrisbaneW38-12Suncorp37,7612nd
4Apr 2ndSat 7:30pmHSydneyL4-28QLD C.B.17,9295th
5Apr 8thFri 6:00pmAWarriorsL24-25Redcliffe6,2549th
6Apr 14thThu 7:50pmACanberraW18-12GIO11,8548th
7Apr 23rdSat 5:30pmHGold CoastW30-4QLD C.B.14,5476th
8Apr 30thSat 7:00pmA NParramattaW35-4Darwin10,0173rd
9May 7thSat 7:30pmHNewcastleW36-16QLD C.B.14,4633rd
10May 15thSun 6:00pmA NWests TigersW36-12Suncorp43,4013rd
11May 21stSat 5:30pmHMelbourneW36-6QLD C.B.22,7283rd
12May 27thFri 6:00pmAPenrithL0-22BlueBet17,1253rd
13Jun 2ndThu 7:50pmAGold CoastW32-6CBUS10,3343rd
14Jun 10thFri 8:00pmHSt Geo IllaW31-12QLD C.B.14,6833rd
15Jun 17thFri 6:00pmAManlyW28-264 Pines9,2263rd
16Jul 2ndSat 5:30pmHBrisbaneW40-26QLD C.B.23,5313rd
18Jul 15thFri 6:00pmHCronullaL12-26QLD C.B.15,9823rd
19Jul 24thSun 4:05pmHWests TigersW27-26QLD C.B.14,9102nd
20Jul 31stSun 4:05pmASt Geo IllaW34-8Netstrata9,5172nd
21Aug 7thSun 2:00pmA NCanterburyW28-14Bundaberg8,5212nd
22Aug 13thSat 3:00pmASydneyL18-32SCG15,2192nd
23Aug 19thFri 6:00pmHWarriorsW48-4QLD C.B.17,4042nd
24Aug 27thSat 7:35pmASouthsL10-20Accor15,2643rd
25Sep 3rdSat 7:35pmHPenrithW38-8QLD C.B.23,8403rd
QFSep 10thSat 7:50pmACronullaW32-30Pointsbet12,4473rd
PFSep 23rdFri 7:50pmHParramattaL20-24QLD C.B.25,3723rd

Best players

As well as the entire squad performed, there are a few names that really stood out and will be the key for continued success next year. Scott Drinkwater was a revelation, having shown plenty of potential in 2021 but not having gotten much of a chance at fullback. Murray Tuilagi has made the transition from an exciting prospect to seasoned professional. This year his consistent performances earned him Queensland and Australian jerseys, and against the Wests Tigers he threw possibly the pass of the century. Valentine Holmes continued to be an absolute superstar and provided the Cowboys with the X-factor to win big games in attack. In the halves, Tom Dearden was outstanding and silenced many critics.

In the forwards, nobody could overlook the impact of teenage sensation Jeremiah Nanai. He scored in both of the Cowboys' first two wins, including a hat-trick against the Broncos. And then, well, he just kept on scoring, finishing as the side's equal top try scorer for the season and also earning Queensland and Australian jerseys, despite still only being 19.

Reuben Cotter was another revelation. He emerged as an 80 minute front rower, earnt a Queensland debut with tireless performances and dominated the Blues' forwards in game one before being injured. Reece Robson and Tom Gilbert also deserve special mentions for their consistency in the Cowboys' engine room.

But it was Jason Taumalolo, who after having a rough time of it in 2021, was a man reborn. The better the team around him went, the better he became. It was hard to know if it was "JT" carrying the team forward on his back or responding to the improvements around him. But regardless of the spark, he again showed that he is the premier forward in the game and deserved the club's player of the year award.

Rookies

There were limited opportunities in the Cowboys' line-up this season due to the relative lack of ongoing injuries to players and impressive form of the starting side. Aside from Nanai's incredible year, Griffin Neame slotted onto the bench and did a superb job for coach Payten throughout the season.

Highly rated fullback Tom Chester also got his first chance in the big time in 2022, debuting off the bench against the Sharks in round 18. With Tabuai-Fidow leaving, Chester will no doubt have more opportunities to impress in 2023.

2022 player stats

PlayerAgeAppTGFGPtsBinOff
CHESTER, Tom211------
COTTER, Reuben23182--8--
DEARDEN, Tom21239--36--
DRINKWATER, Scott2522114-52--
DUNN, Mitchell252------
ELLIOT, Brendan283------
FELDT, Kyle302011--441-
GILBERT, Tom22243--121-
GRANVILLE, Jake3314------
HAMPTON, Ben302------
HESS, Coen26231--42-
HIKU, Peta29265--20--
HOLMES, Valentine2724101003244--
LEILUA, Luciano26113--12--
LEMUELU, Connelly2442--8--
LUKI, Heilum21144--16--
McLEAN, Jordan3022------
NANAI, Jeremiah192317--681-
NEAME, Griffin21234--161-
ROBSON, Reece24267--28--
TABUAI-FIDOW, Hamiso21237--28--
TAULAGI, Murray232517--68--
TAUMALOLO, Jason29251--41-
TAUNOA-BROWN, Jamayne2516------
TOWNSEND, Chad3126241171-
25 players25.8526116108468580

Looking ahead

While they will welcome forwards Mitchell Dunn and Heilum Luki back from injury, the Cowboys will also rue the losses of Tom Gilbert and Connelly Lemuelo - along with the Hammer - to the Redcliffe Dolphins. Depth options Kane Bradley, Emry Pere and Morgan McWhirter also depart the club, and the Cowboys have no signings of note in 2023.

This potentially leaves the side exposed to depth issues should they run into an injury crisis.

With that said, the success and representative experience of the 2022 side will make the starting 2023 for the new season look even more formidable. The run to the prelims taught the younger players and coaching staff a lot about what it will take for the Cowboys to go one or two steps further. Even though their defense was a revelation in 2022, it let them down in key moments when it mattered against the Eels and Sharks in the finals. With another off-season under their belt, those lapses should be improved upon dramatically.

It goes without saying that the chances of the Cowboys winning the competition in 2023 are strong. But for them to take out the Panthers would require yet another surprise packet, something unexpected and unpredictable, to give them an extra gear that Penrith can't handle. Realistically though, the Cowboys will be aiming for a similar result in 2023 while bolstering their depth in key positions.

2023 Best 17

at time of writing

1. Scott Drinkwater
2. Murray Tuilagi
3. Valentine Holmes
4. Peta Hiku
5. Kyle Feldt
6. Tom Dearden
7. Chad Townsend
8. Jordan McLean
9. Reece Robson
10. Reuben Cotter
11. Mitch Dunn
12. Jeremiah Nanai
13. Jason Taumalolo

14. Griffin Neame
15. Coen Hess
16. Luciano Leilua
17. Heilum Luki