North Queensland Cowboys – 2014 NRL Preview

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Last weekend the North Queensland Cowboys claimed their first piece of silverware as they were victorious in the Auckland Nines. How successful will they be in the NRL season in 2014? Read below to see what rugby league writer Daniel Boss thinks about their chances.

2013 review

A lot was expected from the Cowboys in 2013, as many rugby league followers and writers (excluding this writer) thought that the Cowboys would definitely finish in the top 4. For most of the season, they were underperforming and following a round 20 loss to Brisbane, it was decided that Neil Henry would no longer be the coach at the end of the season. Following this announcement, the Cowboys won their next 6 games to make the finals. They were controversially eliminated at the hands of Cronulla, following the 7-tackle debacle.

Even though the 2013 season was not as fruitful as the 2012 season for the Cowboys, there was an improvement in their defensive statistics. They conceded more than half a point less per game in 2013 than they did in 2012. Compared to the 2013 season average, the Cowboys conceded less than two and a half points per game, which is something that they will want to maintain in 2014. However, the attack of the Cowboys regressed in 2013, as they scored less than three and a half points per game in 2013 than they did in 2012. It was still higher than the season average by over half a point, but if the Cowboys are to finish higher in 2014, then they will need to see improvement in their attack. This won’t be easy, given the departure of possibly the greatest Cowboy, dynamic fullback Matt Bowen.

Outside backs

There have been quite a few departures of outside backs at Townsville. In addition to the departure of Bowen, Ashley Graham, Clint Greenshields and Kalifa Faifai Loa have left the club. This has opened up the fullback and wing positions. The first choice fullback was likely to be signing Lachlan Coote, however he is likely to miss the season with a knee injury. This means that there is no recognised fullback in the club and the big question for the Cowboys heading into the season is who will play fullback. As for the wings, Antonio Winterstein has one position wrapped up, while the other position is up for grabs. The likely starter is Kyle Feldt, while signing Matthew Wright is also in contention. Wayne Ulugia would have been in contention for this position, had he not had his contract torn up for disciplinary reasons. In the centres, there is some stability with Brent Tate and Kane Linnett the likely starting combination. It is a strong combination too, as Tate is ever solid and Linnett is one of the best young backs in the NRL. Aside from the players mentioned, there is no other recognised outside backs at the club. This may result in some young and/or inexperienced players getting a chance in 2014 in the outside backs.

Halves

Much like the centres, the starting halves combination for the Cowboys should also be the same as last year. Obviously, Johnathan Thurston will be the starting five-eighth, as he is the heart and soul of the team.  As for the halfback, this position was cemented by Robert Lui last season. He is the best option as he provides another point of attack and takes some of the organising responsibilities away from Thurston, which allows him to focus on his strong running game. In terms of depth, the Cowboys also have Ray Thompson and Michael Morgan to cover in the halves or even replace one of the halves in the case of bad form.

Front row

North Queensland arguably possesses the best starting props in the NRL, in Australian representatives Matt Scott and James Tamou. Both provide a great amount of momentum, which gives their halves more room to threaten the opposition. The Cowboys have solid players to back up these two starting props; in the form of Scott Bolton, Ashton Sims and Ricky Thorby. However, the side does lose a bit when either Scott or Tamou is not on the field. The starting hooker position is not so clear cut. Incumbent Ray Thompson should get the first chance, however he faces plenty of competition from the likes of Rory Kostjasyn, Anthony Mitchell and signing Cameron King. There are plenty of options here, despite the loss of Scott Moore and Jayden Hodges in the off-season. I particularly like the signing of King, who has shown glimpses of good play in his limited opportunities in first grade.

Back row

The only big change from 2013 to 2014 in the Cowboys’ back row is the loss of Dallas Johnson. Aside from that there are no major arrivals or departures. The likely starting back row will be Tariq Sims, Glenn Hall and Gavin Cooper. Sims is yet to reach his best form since recovering from two broken legs. If he does return to his best form, the rest of the competition will be on notice. Hall and Cooper are less dynamic than Sims but both are hard-working players who can also offer some ball playing ability. For depth in the back row, the Cowboys have the damaging Jason Taumalolo, who will be looking to further develop and reach his potential in 2014, as well as Joel Riethmuller, who impressed in 2013. Both are good players to have in the squad, but aside from them there are no recognised back rowers in the squad.

Bench

Last season, the Cowboys played one hooker and three other forwards on the bench. I can see them using a similar type of bench in 2014. This is because Ray Thompson is able to cover in the halves and Gavin Cooper can cover in the outside backs, so there is no need to carry a back on the bench. They have plenty of good hookers, so I would expect them to play at least two of them in a game (and yes, I will not insert a poor ‘Three’s company’ pun here).  I would expect the Cowboys to have Jason Taumalolo on the bench to provide impact as well as two props to give Matt Scott and James Tamou a rest.

Coach

As mentioned above, Neil Henry did not have his contract renewed at the end of the 2013 season, which has resulted in the Cowboys hiring a new coach for 2014, Paul Green. Green was quite a good player in his day and has plenty of wraps on him, but aside from that, his coaching ability is somewhat of an unknown. He has a squad to achieve success with, so in that regard, there will be pressure on him for his side to perform well this season.

Best squad

  1. Lachlan Coote
  2. Kyle Feldt
  3. Brent Tate
  4. Kane Linnett
  5. Antonio Winterstein
  6. Johnathan Thurston
  7. Robert Lui
  8. Matt Scott
  9. Ray Thompson
  10. James Tamou
  11. Tariq Sims
  12. Glenn Hall
  13. Gavin Cooper
  14. Cameron King
  15. Scott Bolton
  16. Ashton Sims
  17. Jason Taumalolo

Prediction

8th. I expect a similar result for the Cowboys this season. The loss of Matt Bowen will have a much greater impact than they might expect, especially after the knee injury to Lachlan Coote. They do have a good team across the park but they have disappointed in the past. I still think they will play in the finals but not have too much impact if they get there. While Thurston is still very good, he isn’t the same player that he was 2 or 3 seasons ago. I’m also not sold on the hooker position. Sure, Thompson is good at his best and they do have plenty of options but none are proven commodities over a great length of time. They will still be tough to beat at home but they need to amend their poor record in Sydney if they are to finish higher in 2014.

2014 Ladder Prediction

  1. Canterbury Bulldogs
  2. Penrith Panthers
  3. Newcastle Knights
  4. North Queensland Cowboys
  5. Gold Coast Titans
  6. St George Illawarra Dragons
  7. Brisbane Broncos
  8. New Zealand Warriors
  9. Wests Tigers
  10. Parramatta Eels
  11. Canberra Raiders
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