13/04/2024

A bright future for the North Queensland Cowboys. (Image: Supplied by Alexander Jay)

Rugby League is a religion in North Queensland, and being a Cowboys fan means having a crisis of faith every other year.

Last Season

After an improbable run saw them finish 3rd in 2022 (losing a tight contest in the preliminary final at home against Parramatta 20-24), Cowboys fans were gearing up for another crack at the top 4 in 2023… only to be severely disappointed.

Outside of kicking the most Field Goals across the league (7), they were in the bottom half of the league in almost every aspect, struggling on both sides of the field to finish 12-12 for the year in 11th and out of the playoffs.

The team were in the bottom half league-wide in possession (10th), linebreaks (13th), post-contact meters (13th), tackle breaks (11th) and offloads (16th), strange at first glance, considering the presence of giants Jason Taumalolo, Helium Luki and Jordan McLean in the forward pack.

It was clear that the off-season losses of Tom Gilbert & Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to the Dolphins impacted the team’s motor. Last season’s tackling performance declined, ranking 3rd in missed tackles (after being 9th in ‘22) and 6th in Ineffective tackles (12th in ‘22).

The Cowboys did nothing early in the year, having a 3-6 record before a late six-game win streak (along with two byes) promoted The Blue & The Grey from 16th to 7th briefly on the ladder by Round 21. Four poor losses by an average of 18+ points at the end of the season brought the Rugby League disciples in Townsville back down to earth by the end of the season.

Player Movements

Leadership Changes: Homegrown duo Tom Dearden (22) & Reuben Cotter (25) become co-captains, replacing Chad Townsend and Jason Taumalolo

Ins: Viliami Vailea (NZ Warriors), Thomas Mikaele (Warrington Wolves, Super League), Jake Clifford (Hull FC, Super League)

Outs: Peta Hiku (Hull KR, Super League), Luciano Leilua (St George Illawarra Dragons), Riley Price (Penrith Panthers)

What to Expect?

In short: Youth & Pace.

I want to be mindful of slandering 30-year-old Jason Taumalolo, just in case he claps back and retires me from this profession as well (a JT13 hit-up in Under 16s put me in the hospital and ended a mediocre-at-best 10-year career). It’s hard to project what to expect from the $10 million dollar man, still a deity to the devoted up in NQ.

Coach Todd Payton experimented with some very interesting second-receiver concepts, having him play-make at the line in 2022 and draw multiple defenders to allow the likes of Valentine Holmes to burst through on ‘Unders’ lines or create just enough hesitation for emerging second-rower Jeremiah Nanai (5th in NRL in tries in ‘22) to threaten the line. I didn’t see enough of that last year, noting that the former Tongan captain missed eight games with injury.

Taumalolo’s gravity draws in the opposition six and leads to a try

Townsend is also a fine half, but the return of Jake Clifford, who, whilst improving as a ball-running half, was anything but proven when he departed for Newcastle in 2021, might provide an interesting sub-plot to the season.

Clifford scores at the line

The Cowboys too often defaulted to Townsend stabilizing the attack, with dynamic attacking options coming late in the set through Dearden last year. If Townsend misses time, I wouldn’t mind seeing a Clifford/Dearden pairing controlling one-half of the field each just to satisfy my curiosity.

The change in leadership also signals a pivot in ideology in Townsville. Taumalolo is 30, Kyle Feldt is 32, Townsend is 33, and Jake Granville is 35. They lost 35-year-old veteran James Tamou to his second retirement. Every other player in this squad is young, fast, driven and seeking to prove themselves in first-grade footy.

Dearden was electric at times at the helm of the office, Murray Taulagi might be the most fun winger to watch in the competition, and Scott Drinkwater dances through broken play at such a mesmerizing speed.

Under The Most Pressure

Coach – Todd Payton

The most attractive head coach in the league may be facing a mountain of pressure if early season performance is not up to expectations. The 2022 Coach of the Year saw his career win percentage dip below 50% at the end of his 3rd campaign with the Cowboys last year, and has consistently been surrounded by rumours of rifts with key players in local media (consistently denied) and has drawn the ire of several legends nationally for his handling of Taumalolo.

He’s under contract until 2026, with two-time premiership winner James Maloney joining the squad late last year as an Assistant.

Backs – Kyle Feldt

If Johnathan Thurston is a God in North Queensland, Feldt is one of his last remaining disciples.

A man of particularly high good standing in the eyes of locals, Feldt’s time in first grade is running out. The 32-year-old will be competing for four outside back spots with 28-year-old Valentine Holmes, 24-year-old Murray Taulagi, 21-year-old Viliami Vailea, 22-year-old Zac Laybutt, and 24-year-old Semi Valemei (who was impressive in limited time last season).

You can’t mention the great backlines in Cowboys history without mentioning “Feldtybud,” which is highly praised given the legends of Matt Bowen, Matthew Sing, Paul Bowman, and Brent Tate, among others.

However, the 192-game veteran found himself on the fringes of the squad last season. Eleven more career games would see him eclipse the great former captain Paul Bowman for 8th in all-time appearances for the club.

Father Time remains undefeated, but perhaps Feldt can make it one more round in front of his hometown fans.

Forwards – Coen Hess

Coen Hess was initially under the most pressure in the middle, but he suffered an unfortunate knee injury in the second pre-season match against Canberra. It’s currently unclear if this is a season-ending situation for the former Queensland representative.

Last season, he had more offloads and tackles than the 2022 season and was decent enough in short spurts. But this football club has been loading up on young second rowers such as Helium Luki, Jack Gosiewski, D’Jazirhae Pua’Avase, Jeremiah Nanai and Kulikefu Finefeuiaki.

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2024 Projection

After finishing eighth and making the Grand Final in a fairytale run in 2017, North Queensland have finished 13th, 14th, 14th, 15th, 3rd and 11th – the third-place finish likely being an outlier.

The Cowboys rocketed up from last in the league in points conceded per game in the 2021 season (31.6) to 2nd in the 2022 season (13.3), but based on last season, it would be surprising if that stonewalled defence made a return with the limited changes from last year’s squad.

It certainly doesn’t help that hard-nosed Tom Gilbert and the quickest man north of Canterbury in Tabuai-Fidow left for inter-state rivals after that season and thrived (Gilbert averaged 118 running meters per game for The Dolphins; The Hammer scored 15 times in 20 appearances and was selected as the Australian Centre – did I mention that?!?).

While I have my hopes that:

  • a) the threat of Clifford in the squad might motivate NRL Premiership winner Chad Townsend,
  • b) the youth across the park might simply out-hustle opponents every other game, and
  • c) anyone in the history of rugby league could do a better job than last year’s version of Peta Hiku,

It is unknown if this team has enough offensive spark or defensive fortitude to pick this team inside the top eight.

Projection: 9-10

Summary

Being indoctrinated as a Cowboys fan is difficult. 

Before being taken to the promised land in 2015, hundreds of thousands of families endured long-lasting sports trauma from ‘the flick pass’ in the 2005 Grand Final and then four consecutive Finals series starting in 2011.

Firsts, blowing the lead to eventual premiers Manly Sea Eagles in the first finals game in 2011. Then Manly beat the Cowboys again in 2012, and the game had a lot of controversial moments.

The infamous ‘seventh tackle try’ that proved to be the difference against Cronulla in the 2013 finals. The following year, the Cowboys lost by one point to the Roosters in the 2014 Semi-Final.

I used to believe that The North Queensland Cowboys Football Club was legitimately cursed until they miraculously won the 2015 Grand Final.

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