Only an inch – or a millisecond, even – cruelled the Cowboys’ finals progress in 2013. But the fact they found themselves in that position – in a sudden-death Finals Week One showdown with the Sharks, and with the placement of centre Kane Linnett’s boot as he was diving for the tryline the make-or-break moment in their season – glosses over what was a disappointing season for the boys from the far north.
The Cowboys had a roster capable of challenging the heavyweights of the NRL in 2013 – but unfortunately for North Queensland’s fans, they simply left their run too late. Up against a committed Cronulla side in the First Elimination Final – and some would say up against some highly questionable officiating, too – the Cowboys ran out of puff.
Their year started in the most devastating fashion, with the star-studded squad rocked by the sudden passing of promising rookie Alex Elisala in late April. Promoted to the NRL squad in 2013 after representing Queensland’s Under-20s last year, Elisala’s death rocked the Cowboys’ camp. The North Queenslanders admitted they were struggling to deal with the loss and it’s fair to say it took a long time for the club to recover. On the field it wasn’t looking bright, either – one of the competition favourites at the start of the season, North Queensland simply struggled to get going. Three consecutive losses to Melbourne, Newcastle and the Warriors in Rounds 2-4 set the tone for what would prove a tough few months, after opening their account in Round 1 with a promising 12-point win against the Bulldogs.
Three wins from four matches from Rounds 5-8 lifted fans’ hopes, but by Round 20 – after eight losses from 10 weeks of football – those same supporters were all but resigned to a dismal end to 2013.
Then in July it was announced Neil Henry would not be coaching the team in 2014, and just a few weeks later club legend Matt Bowen announced this year would be his swansong in the NRL, too. The announcements, however, actually revitalised and energised a squad that previously felt weighed down by expectation – and the removal of the shackles saw the club embark on a six-match winning streak that saw them leapfrog the Titans, Panthers, Warriors and Broncos and qualify for the finals in eighth position. It was no mean feat for a club that sat in just 13th position entering Round 20.
Where They Excelled: North Queensland’s representative front-rowers did their best to lay a strong platform, which ultimately helped their side to a total average of 1423.6 metres per match (second in the NRL).
NSW bookend James Tamou averaged an impressive 146 metres during the regular season while Queensland star Matt Scott recorded 141.
The Cowboys impressed with ball in hand, too – they remained an attacking threat, making 4.4 line-breaks per game (equal fifth in the NRL). Antonio Winterstein (15 line-breaks), Johnathan Thurston (12 line-breaks) and Matt Bowen (11 line-breaks) proved most effective across the entire season.
Where They Struggled: Defensive issues were the key concern – they averaged 27.5 missed tackles per match (sixth most in the NRL). With six losses by four points or less, those missed tackles made a sizeable difference to the side’s overall finish.
The Cowboys were their own worst enemies for much of the season, with basic errors cruelling their efforts to right their premiership campaign. The Cowboys averaged 10.4 attacking errors per game (9th in the NRL), with Johnathan Thurston (30) and Brent Tate (23) the main offenders.
Missing In Action: The Cowboys used 30 players throughout the season – the equal third-highest number by any club. The high figure is indicative of the injury problems they suffered throughout the year.
Veteran forward Dallas Johnson (knee) played just 15 games before announcing his retirement, a similar story to try-scoring winger Ashley Graham who also revealed he’d be hanging up the boots after just 14 matches in 2013. Halfback-turned-hooker Ray Thompson broke his jaw in a tackle by Knight Kade Snowden, too – he played a total of 19 matches but missed the Cowboys’ crucial finals showdown against the Sharks.
The biggest blow, however, was when veteran fullback Matt Bowen was ruled out for six weeks with a knee injury. The club missed his spark and brilliance from the back during the State of Origin period.
Turning Point: It’s probably easy – and fair – to say the refereeing in the Cowboys’ Finals Week One clash with Cronulla had the greatest influence on their season. However, they wouldn’t have even featured in the finals had it not been for their spirited run home – something the players attributed to the announcement that coach Henry was leaving at season’s end.
On July 29, the Cowboys board announced their mentor would not be with the club beyond 2013 – and the players responded in emphatic fashion… and they learned to win again. They began their run to the finals with victories against South Sydney, Penrith and the Gold Coast, and finished the regular season with a wet sail after collecting two competition points from each of Newcastle, Cronulla and the Wests Tigers.
Best Games: It’s hard to look past the Cowboys’ 30-12 table-turning victory against ladder-leading South Sydney in Round 21. Following three weeks of consecutive losses as well as the sacking of their coach, it was a victory that restored faith north of the border.
So too was their effort the following week, a 36-4 demolition of the Panthers when co-captain and star Johnathan Thurston put on a clinic.
Worst Games: Not too many Cowboys fans – or players – would be keen to re-visit their side’s performances against the Titans in Round 12, or the Sea Eagles in Round 18. Up against the Gold Coast, North Queensland were ripped to shreds, conceding a total of seven line-breaks on the way to a 31-12 defeat. It was a similar story against the Sea Eagles six weeks later – Manly marched to a 34-14 victory on the back of six tries and eight line-breaks… and some pretty shoddy Cowboys defence.
Hold Your Head High: Johnathan Thurston continued to prove himself one of the game’s best playmakers, particularly in North Queensland’s six-game winning streak at the end of the regular season – he produced nine try assists, four line-breaks and a try. Bowen was also brilliant (16 line-breaks and 18 try assists) at various stages of the season, while Tamou and Scott continued to lay solid foundations for the side.
Of the less-experienced players, Ray Thompson looks a promising talent at hooker, while rookie winger Wayne Ulugia, who scored six tries in four matches, appears to have a bright future.
Brent Tate (leading tryscorer for the club with 10), centre Kane Linnett (most minutes for the club this season with 2000) and back-rower Gavin Cooper (leading tackler at the Cowboys with 612) also had strong seasons.
Conclusion: Their controversial exit against the Sharks was a bitter pill to swallow, but the Cowboys should simply never really have found themselves in that position. Featuring top-quality talent and one of the strongest rosters in the competition, their Finals Week One exit equates to another season of regrets and ‘what ifs’ – the common theme at the club in their 19-year history.
Home Record: 7 wins, 5 losses (=6th)
Away Record: 5 wins, 7 losses (=7th)
Longest Winning Streak: 6 (Rounds 21-26)
Longest Losing Streak: 5 (Rounds 9-13)
Players Used: 30
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 88 (=7th)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 76 (6th)