Saturday, 10 September 2016

NRL Title Contenders: North Queensland Cowboys (2016)

The defending champions started the season strongly, and despite losing two of their first four games, they were spirited efforts against strong sides. The Cowboys then won five straight to lead the competition, but since then they have won just seven of 14 games.

Their Round 24 victory over the Warriors was only their second in seven weeks, but that performance – along with a gritty away defeat of Canterbury on Thursday – was a return to their early-season, indicating they are hitting form at the perfect time.

Why They Can Win
They know how. After breaking through for their maiden premiership victory last year, the Cowboys side this year is near identical to last year’s squad. They have experienced players at club and rep level laced throughout the line-up. In the halves are Queensland Origin and Australian Test players Michael Morgan and Johnathan Thurston. The front-row boast Origin and Test stars Matt Scott and James Tamou. The back row consists of veteran and recent Origin debutant Gavin Cooper, and Kiwi Test forward Jason Taumalolo.

The backline contains Maroons centre Justin O’Neill and former Scottish Test player Kane Linnett. Fullback is held down by Lachlan Coote, whose form was so good he was tipped to play Origin this year for New South Wales. Throw in bench players like former Test and Origin rep Ben Hannant and Tongan Test player Patrick Kaufusi, and you have a team that deserves to be considered a favourite to be premiers.

Why They Can’t
Overreliance on their halves. While the Cowboys have arguably the best halves combination in the competition, it therefore means they are the most heavily targeted by opposition defences and attacking back rowers, who make a beeline for them time and again. Despite the club saying that they can win without Thurston, the fact is they very rarely do. This year they have lost all three games he missed, and since 2013, they have won just two of the 11 games Thurston didn’t play. Since coming to the club in 2005, the Cowboys have won 55% of games when Thurston played and 28% when he didn’t. The Cowboys’ strongest asset is also their biggest concern. They need JT on the field if they are to be competitive.

Key Player 
Lachlan Coote. The Cowboys custodian has been able to put an injury-plagued run behind him, culminating in a spectacular season in 2015, carrying that form this season. He provides Thurston with essentially a second five-eighth in attack and is a vital link player. The diminutive Coote has proven to be very capable under the high ball and his positional play is brilliant.

Squad Health 
The Cowboys currently have former Test player Ben Hannant out with a knee injury, while star hooker Jake Granville returned last week from an injured hand. Hannant is expected to return for the last round of the regular season, just in time for the finals.

Finals Record 
The Cowboys have played 20 finals matched, winning 11 and losing nine. They won all three of their four finals matches last year, bouncing back from a week one loss to Brisbane with wins over Cronulla and Melbourne, before defeating the Broncos in the grand final in extra time. Last season marked the first time the Cowboys had progressed beyond week two of the playoffs since 2007.

Run Home
The Cowboys face a difficult last-round assignment to confirm their top-four spot, hosting a Titans side that is playing for a finals berth.

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

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