Can Johnathan Thurston carry the Cowboys to a premiership in 2014? Credit: NRL Photos Copyright: NRL Photos
They were touted as premiership contenders 12 months ago and with a new coach and new fullback there's no reason the same shouldn't be expected in 2014.
1. JT's premiership window
It will be season number 13 for arguably the game's premier player and the first in a rich four-year deal that will likely be the final contract he ever signs. He came off the bench in the Bulldogs' 2002 premiership win but leading the Cowboys to a maiden premiership is the only missing notation in a glittering career resume. Many believed 2013 was going to be that year but just four wins in the opening 13 rounds all but signalled that the premiership window had closed for another season.
In an under-performing team Thurston led all five-eighths in the NRL in line-break assists (18), was second to James Maloney in line breaks (12), third in try assists (22), second in offloads (25), third in tackle breaks (56) and second in points scored (151). His desperation in defence is unmatched for someone of his size yet his 30 errors were the most of any five-eighth last year and he was second (behind Maloney) in missed tackles. The challenge for new coach Paul Green is to get the best out of 'JT' without asking him to do everything himself.
2. Fresh approach
The catalyst for the Cowboys' six-game winning streak that took them all the way to the finals was the announcement that Neil Henry would not be the head coach in 2014. But will that translate into a more cohesive unit under new coach Paul Green? In the merry-go-round that is NRL coaching the Cowboys were the first to be able to dip their toes in the water with Green, Kevin Walters, Brad Arthur, Terry Matterson, Trent Barrett and Andrew Dunemann all touted as possible candidates.
The Cowboys board eventually decided on Green, a former Queensland Origin rep and 1995 Rothmans Medal winner who coached Wynnum-Manly to back-to-back Queensland Cup titles in 2011-12 and in 2013 guided the Roosters under-20s to third in the minor premiership. Matterson – who did a superb job with the USA Tomahwaks in the World Cup – stays on as an assistant with former Canberra head coach David Furner also joining the organisation as an assistant. Trent Robinson (Roosters), Geoff Toovey (Sea Eagles) and Michael Maguire (Rabbitohs) have shown that new coaches can have instant success and there seems no reason why Green can't do the same.
3. Settling the spine
While Thurston and fullback Matt Bowen remained the constants throughout 2013, it took until halfway through the season before coach Neil Henry was able to settle on his 'spine'. Having used Michael Morgan and Ray Thompson at halfback early in the year, Henry made Robert Lui JT's long-term partner in Round 10 while the move of Thompson into the troublesome hooking role in Round 13 also added to the structure that the spine had been missing.
Of course, with Bowen's move to Wigan, there is no 'Mango' in Townsville in 2014 but the addition of former Panthers custodian Lachlan Coote shapes as a more than adequate replacement. However, Coote will have a difficult time replicating the try assists (18) and line-break assists (16) that Bowen delivered this season in his first year as a Cowboy. Talented young rake Cameron King adds depth to the No.9 position and will pressure Thompson for that starting spot as the season progresses. There are some new faces but Green should be able to build a spine that gives Thurston the support he needs.
4. Defence is holding firm
For a team that just scraped into the finals series, the Cowboys sure did rack up some impressive defensive statistics in 2013. They ranked third best in metres conceded, sixth in both points conceded and tries conceded and fifth in line breaks conceded. They did rank 11th for missed tackles but it will be comforting to new coach Paul Green that the defensive structures currently in place do not need a major overhaul. Under Green, the Roosters under-20s were second in points conceded and with a forward pack boasting the likes of Matt Scott, James Tamou, Gavin Cooper, Glenn Hall and the Sims boys, Ashton and Tariq, the Cowboys are on course to win over fans with their defensive resolve rather than their attacking flair.
5. Living on the edge
One has been hampered by injury and the other by apparent indifference but if Tariq Sims and Jason Taumalolo can prove to coach Paul Green that they deserve their place in the starting forward pack, the Cowboys will boast edge-runners as destructive as any in the competition. Following back-to-back broken legs, all league fans enjoyed seeing Sims play a full season in 2013 and a maiden Origin appearance with New South Wales beckons if he can start 2014 in good fashion. Seven times last season he played at least 70 minutes and averaged more than 91m in those seven games.
Taumalolo shapes as the more puzzling proposition. Ever since making 125 metres, nine tackle breaks and two line breaks in just his third top-grade appearance, the rugby league world has been waiting for Taumaolo to explode. But whenever he seemed to cement a spot in the NRL squad coach Neil Henry was able to find a reason to send him back to reserve grade to continue his education. He played 17 games in 2012 and 14 in 2013; the time has come for Taumalolo to become the powerhouse contributor on a weekly basis that the Cowboys need him to be.