The 2021 North Queensland Cowboys season was, unfortunately, another disappointing one.
The Cowboys are clearly on the rebuild, but fans are beginning to become restless with the side now missing finals for the fourth season in a row. With an average age of 23.88, fans can take solace in the fact the side is very young and there are clear good signs from the youngsters.
The Cowboys season was one of two halves; the side was poised for a top-eight finish before the bye. However, the team only managed one more win during the last 12 rounds. The Cowboys failure to capitalise on an excellent start to finish in 15th position on the ladder.
The Inner Sanctum looks at a year in review for the North Queensland Cowboys.
Going into the bye at round 13, the Cowboys looked like challenging for a top-eight position. With 14 points at round 13, the side was excellently poised and sitting in seventh. Unfortunately, with some players lost to injury and suspension, the side couldn’t continue this momentum into the second half of the season. However, there are still some clear positives to take away.
Valentine Holmes’ explosiveness helped the team get onto an early roll. Scores were high for the Cowboys; in all except one match, the team scored above 25 points. Murray Taluagi was a big reason for this, with his highlight being a hat trick against the Newcastle Knights.
First-year coach Todd Payten brought in a handful of first-year players for debuts.
The North Queensland Cowboys rebuild was a positive of the 2021 season. The Cowboys handed out five debut jerseys during 2021. For the Cowboys faithful, they will be hoping the five new players will be a stable core the side can build around for the next decade.
Helium Luki, Kane Bradley, Jeremiah Nanai, Griffin Neame, and Latia Moceidreke all made their debuts in first grade. Once it became evident that the Cowboys would miss finals, Payten changed his sights to bolster up the depth in the squad.
Payten seems to believe in the debutants. Luki, Nanai and Neame finished the season all part of the first-choice team. With another preseason under their belts, the rookies will come back bigger and stronger, allowing them to step their game up to another level.
Injuries decimated the North Queensland Cowboys just as they were starting to get on a roll.
The Cowboys most crucial player is no doubt, Valentine Holmes. The fullback suffered a shoulder injury during Origin, which meant he missed games right as the Cowboys were looking to continue their momentum. His injury was, in many ways, the catalyst for the 10-game losing streak which defined the season.
The Cowboys also lost their captain for stretches of the season. Jason Taumalolo missed ten games due to breaking his hand not once not twice but three times. While he toughed the season out, he will be looking to come back fully fit in 2022.
The Cowboys struggled with the physical standards of the NRL.
Todd Payten had a clear preference for young players during the season. While it provides a look towards the future, it takes some time for younger players to get used to the NRL. This was shown best with Jake Clifford leaving the club midseason.
Clifford played a massive part in the first six wins of the club. However, when he left, Tom Dearden was brought in from the Broncos. Dearden is only 20 years of age and wasn’t quite up to the physical aspects of the game. However, he is a skilled player who Payten believes in and with an offseason in the Cowboys system, fans should see visible improvement in 2022.
In his second season with the Cowboys, Holmes was by far the best performer. He finished with 126 points, over 3000 metres gained and 54 goals, putting him in the top 10 in the competition across all these categories. Interestingly, Holmes also finished first in the competition with two field goals, which allowed the team to get across the line both times.
Kyle Feldt was another who had an impressive season. He had a huge start to the season and was rewarded with his first Origin jersey. He proved to be a barometer for the side, when Feldt went quiet in the second half of the season, the Cowboys also struggled. Feldt managed 26 tackle busts and 21-line breaks allowing him to get across for 12 tries during the season.
In only his third season in the NRL, Taulagi was the most impressive up and comer for the Cowboys. He took places as both a centre and winger throughout the season, adding to his importance and versatility. He finished the season with ten tries from 20 games as well as over 2000 run metres. Over the next few years, Taulagi will be crucial to the Cowboys and their growth.
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Clifford’s leaving coincided with the North Queensland Cowboys beginning their season’s landslide with a 10-game losing streak, which defined the season. Unfortunately, Dearden, at 20 years old, wasn’t quite up to the job.
The highlight is that going forward, the Cowboys will have a quality bankable player at the halfback position. Chad Townsend is a 193-game veteran of the NRL who will move into the Cowboys line-up. Townsend will also provide some stronger goalkicking. Holmes kicked a lot of goals but wasn’t the most accurate.
It was the night of July 3 when the Cowboys hit their lowest point in a season of many lows.
It was only the second minute of the game when the Knights got across the try line for the first time. This was the first of seven tries that the Knights managed that night.
Jake Clifford had only left the Cowboys a month before, as he kicked five of seven conversions. The full-time siren went with the Knights going home 38-0 winners. It was one of the biggest losses of the season for the Cowboys. The team was also held scoreless in what was by far the worst performance of the season.
Number one off-season priority?
The offseason will bring a huge job for Todd Payten. While 2021 allowed him to get his footing and find out what it is to be the Cowboys coach, fans will be less forgiving in 2022, and results will soon be demanded.
The Cowboys have lost Francis Molo and may also lose Shane Wright with him yet to sign on the dotted line. The team will look very different in 2022, with many new players looking to come into the side.
The most important thing for the off-season is for Tadd Payten to find a game plan that includes these new players while still developing the young talent that was so good in 2021.
Way too early best 17 for 2022
Hopefully, the 2022 season will allow the Cowboys to get back a full-strength squad. Along with some key additions in Peta Hiku and Chad Townsend, the side will undoubtedly be better and not so reliant on the superstars of Feldt and Holmes.
Along with the youngsters that Peyton brought in during 2021, the mix of experience and youth will allow more development while competing for longer during games.
The 2021 season was a mess for the Cowboys. It was a mixture of misery with some small glimpses of sunshine.
Key youngsters are on the way through but not quite ready. With the Cowboys also losing some excellent experienced talent, 2022 will be another challenging year.
Positives can be taken from the first half of the season where Todd Payten seemed to have his squad in the palm of his hand.
Overall, the side can look back on the season with some positives, but there is still a lot of work to do.
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