Nigel Wall,, NRL.com
The Cowboys will be looking to make it back to the NRL finals for the third year in a row in season 2013.
Strengths: Things look neon-bright for the Cowboys, who retain much the same roster that pushed to within one game of the grand final decider in 2012. Their Road Runner-like backline, which carved out the competition’s best attacking stats – including a benchmark 24.7 points a game and league-high 5.3 line-breaks – remains intact. Once again crafty Johnathan Thurston will relish calling the shots and creating space for his outside backs, who wreaked more damage than any other side: Matthew Bowen, Ashley Graham, Kane Linnett, Brent Tate and Kalifa Faifai Loa each topped 100 metres every week, with Graham co-leading try-scorer.
No team will boast a more formidable front row, with Kangaroo bookends James Tamou and Matt Scott looking to grow on their remarkable returns in 2012 – the duo clawed out more ground than any other prop pairing, with a whopping 155 metres and 144 metres respectively helping North Queensland to the most metres around the park. This ‘shock and awe’ strategy will be bolstered by the return of young dynamo Tariq Sims from injury. If he avoids further sideline time the Cowboys will dominate up front most weeks.
And expect Johnathan Thurston to be even better in the No.6 jersey after a rousing ‘warm-up’ year. Playing one man wider he averaged a try assist every game plus 26 line-break busts in 2012.
Weaknesses: North Queensland can’t afford another rusty start in 2013. They spluttered out of the blocks last season, whitewashed at home by the Titans in Round 1 before then digging a hole for themselves with lacklustre home losses to the Sharks in Round 4 and Storm in Round 6. If they are to stake a claim for the title they must be consistent all year.
The jury remains out on how the Cowboys’ structures will be affected by the loss of both of their dummy-half options over the off-season. Following Aaron Payne’s retirement and James Segeyaro’s departure to the Panthers the pressure is on mid-2012 recruit Anthony Mitchell and new buy Rory Kostjasyn (ex-Storm) to fill the void from the get-go. Covering for one player is difficult enough, but pretty much starting a new hooker rotation from scratch is another altogether; it may take some time for the combination to gel.
And fingers are crossed Matthew Bowen can maintain his stellar form as he gets deeper into his twilight years. The electrifying fullback turned back to clock in 2012, making 20 line-breaks, scoring 13 tries, sending 26 teammates over the try line, putting 19 teammates through gaps and evading 117 would-be tackles. But approaching 31 years of age and with a checkered history with injuries he may do well to manage even two thirds of that stunning return.