Saturday, 10 September 2016

2016 preview: North Queensland Cowboys (2016)

In a nutshell…
Despite a slow start and an at-times inconsistent post-Origin period, North Queensland finally delivered on their ample potential and scored their first ever premiership in one of the greatest grand finals in the game’s history. In 2016 they will no longer be the underdog, instead they will be out to try and do what hasn’t been done in a full competition since 1993: win back-to-back premierships.

Gains: Shaun Hudson (Gold Coast), Jahrome Hughes (Townsville Blackhawks)

Losses: Viliame Kikau (Penrith), Cameron King (Parramatta), Glenn Hall (retired), Robert Lui (Salford Reds), Hezron Murgha (Townsville Blackhawks), Kelepi Tanginoa (Parramatta), Scott Schulte (Parramatta)

The Cowboys have not felt the need to enhance their squad any further – and who could blame them. They have only lost some depth players who barely had any game time last year.
When Matt Bowen left the club, you would have been excused for thinking the Cowboys would struggle to find a replacement who could have an impact in their own right, while also forming a strong combination with Jonathan Thurston. But they did in Lachlan Coote, who just seemed to get better every week in a spectacular comeback from a knee injury.

The backline also has plenty of speed and tryscoring ability. Winterstein (16 tries), O’Neill (13) and Linnett (10) are capable finishers, which gives the Cowboys great options on both sides of the field, while Kyle Feldt’s grand final heroics cemented his wing spot. Matthew Wright and the luckless Tautau Moga are also in the mix, while freakishly talented youngsters Kalyn Ponga and Gideon Gela-Mosby could see first grade this year.

While Thurston was named the Golden Boot recipient for the third time, as the world’s best player, he was almost overshadowed by the form of Michael Morgan – who made a sensational switch from fullback to the No.6 – in 2015. This in itself gave opponents two headaches on either side of the field and also meant less pressure heaped on JT.
North Queensland have a very strongpack in both the front and backrow. The power of Tamou and Scott, the flair of Granville at hooker, the good hole-running ability of Cooper and the consistency of Lowe. Throw inthe rampagingTaumaloloat lock,and a bench consisting ofHannant, Asiata, Bolton and Kostjasyn and you have a balancedforward pack and good depth as well.Young buck Coen Hess is tipped for big things.

Trump cards
Michael Morgan: Had an awesome season where he earned an Origin debut and brought a second dimension to the Cowboys’ style. He scored plenty of tries but set up even more, he has tremendous speed and strength which he used to get outside his defender time and again last year – never better evidenced than when he set up the last-second try in the grand final.

Jake Granville: 2015 was a breakout year for the unwanted Bronco, who took over in the Cowboys’ troublesome hooker role, turning it from a headache into an amazing asset. He will once again be vital to Thurtson getting good clean ball with time and space to do what he does best. Granville has speed out of dummy half, powerful running forwards all around him and the brilliance of Thurston at first receiver. It takes a quality player to make the most of such riches and to play in such a way that makes all these great players look better, which is exactly what Granville did in 2015. His service is what Thurston and Morgan rely immensely upon.

Under the pump
Jason Taumalolo: The big youngster has held down a back row gig in the back row for the past two seasons with little threat until the emergence of John Asiata last year. Expect both to have stronger seasons than last year as they both try to squeeze into the run-on side.

Lachlan Coote: Throughout his unfortunately injury-riddled career, we all saw glimpses of what Coote was capable of when fully fit. In 2015 he finally rid himself of the injury curse and turned out some truly masterful performances. This year it is even more vital to the Cowboys that the off-contract custodian keeps that form going.  

Johnathan Thurston: He’s the world’s best player. Pinpoint kicking, amazing goal kicker, brilliant passing game. Like all the greats, he looks like he has all the time in the world. The form of Morgan last year took a lot of pressure off Thurston, which allowed him more freedom as well as not receiving so much defensive pressure as in the past. He now gets to choose when he wants the ball, instead of it always going to him.

The premiers curse: Carrying their full grand final 17 into their title defence – something that hasn’t been done since 1983 – means the Cowboys are as well-placed as any champion of the NRL era to go back-to-back. But there is a target on their heads and 22 failed defences suggesting that it can’t be done in this day and age.

Achilles heel
State of Origin: Losing both their halves and both props is an immense hurdle to overcome for any side, but it’s magnified for the Cowboys given the quality of players they lose and their style of play which rolls off the back of good early momentum created by the pack.

2015 Stats Leaders
Tries: Antonio Winterstein – 16
Try Assists: Jonathan Thurston – 33
Line-breaks: Michael Morgan – 20
Tackle-breaks: Jason Taumololo – 75
Average metres: Jason Taumololo – 154.1
Average tackles: Ethan Lowe – 35.2
Thurston is one of the best there is, kicking at nearly 79% in his career. In his absence, Ethan Lowe has a respectable 15 goals from 21 attempts at 71.43% in his career. Kyle Feldt is also available but hasn’t had much success yet with the goal kicking duties.

The coach
Paul Green is an unassuming type of coach. He knows how to get the team working as unit and not simply as a ball delivery service for Thurston. He has helped Morgan’s game immensely which has made a massive difference to the team’s style of play and ultimately, success. With two Queensland Cup premierships at Wynnum Manly, an assistant role in the Roosters’ 2013 triumph and helming the Cowboys’ maiden title after just two years as an NRL head coach, Green could develop into a giant of modern coaching.

The captains
Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston will continue their roles as co-captains. They complement each other well and their teammates will follow them into any battle.

Rep drain
Thurston, Scott, Morgan and Tamou all played Origin last year and would all be very likely to do so again in 2016, while Granville, Feldt, Lowe, O’Neill and Coote could be considered outside chances if injuries fall their way.

The draw
North Queensland now know that being premiers does not earn you an easy draw. The play the top 9 teams from last year twice, as well as a hugely improved Parramatta outfit. It will certainly make their quest to repeat last year’s glory far more difficult. They don’t face any of 2015’s bottom four teams until their Round 13 clash with Newcastle. Even then, they don’t meet another of those sides until Round 22, which is against the Tigers at Leichhardt, where the Cowboys have not won since 2000 (the only time they have won there in eight games since 1995).

Big clash
Round 20 against the Bulldogs. While it is a home game for the Cowboys it is the start of the run to the finals – and their run is tricky with games against Storm (H), Tigers (A), Roosters (A), Warriors (H), Bulldogs (A) before a last-round clash with the Titans at home.

Best line-up
1. Lachlan Coote, 2. Antonio Winterstein, 3. Kane Linnett, 4. Justin O’Neill, 5. Kyle Feldt, 6. Michael Morgan, 7. Johnathan Thurston, 8. Matt Scott, 9. Jake Granville, 10. James Tamou, 11. Ethan Lowe, 12. Gavin Cooper, 13. Jason Taumalolo. Int: 14. John Asiata, 15. Ben Hannant, 16. Scott Bolton, 17. Rory Kostjasyn.

**This article appeared on the Commentary Box Sports website**

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