Ben Blaschke, NRL.com
1. Slow start to season
One of the competition favourites before the season kicked off, North Queensland looked on track for a big year when they beat Canterbury in Sydney in Round 1. But over the coming weeks they struggled to get anything going. Three consecutive losses to Melbourne, Newcastle and the Warriors followed, setting the tone for what would prove a tough few months.
2. Alex Elisala tragedy
The Cowboys were rocked by the sudden death of rising star Alex Elisala in late April. Promoted to the senior squad in 2013 after representing the Queensland Under-20s side last year, Elisala represented Samoa in their win over Tonga just nine days before his death. Close friend and Cowboys halfback Michael Morgan later admitted he was struggling to deal with the loss and it’s fair to say it took a long time for the club to recover.
3. Bowen injury setback
The Cowboys suffered another blow in May when veteran fullback Matt Bowen was ruled out for six weeks with a knee injury. A key part of the side’s attack, the club missed his spark during the State of Origin period although the ongoing problems Bowen has suffered with his knee in recent years eventually led the club to decide they wouldn’t be offering him a new contract for 2014. Since he made the tough decision to retire Bowen has really set the Cowboys’ backline alight.
4. Narrow losses make life tough
Struggling to live up to the expectation that surrounded their 2013 season, the Cowboys proceeded to lose a series of narrow games that threatened to cost them dearly come season’s end. Beginning with a 20-18 loss to the Warriors in Round 4 after leading 12-0 early, North Queensland also lost to Brisbane (twice), the Roosters and Wests Tigers all by four points or less.
5. James Tamou suspended
The hits just kept coming for North Queensland with prop James Tamou suspended for two games, including the second State of Origin game, for drink driving. Tamou had been one of his side’s best and his loss – even if only for a few weeks – was another blow to any momentum the club was trying to build.
6. Errors cause problems
The Cowboys were their own worst enemies for much of the season as basic errors cruelled their efforts to resurrect their season. The Cowboys made 251 errors in 2013 – the second worst record in the competition behind only Wests Tigers. Surprisingly, it was Origin stars Johnathan Thurston and Brent Tate that were the main culprits with 29 and 23 errors respectively.
7. Props keep rolling forward
Despite their side’s struggles for much of the year, North Queensland’s representative front-rowers were doing their best to lay a good platform. NSW prop James Tamou averaged an impressive 147 metres during the regular season while Queensland star Matt Scott averaged 143 – the most in his career to date.
8. Neil Henry sacked
The rumours had been circling for some time that coach Neil Henry’s job was at risk if North Queensland didn’t turn things around quickly and when they lost to Queensland rivals Brisbane 18-16 in Round 20 to effectively end their season – or so we thought – the final straw had been reached. On July 29, the Cowboys board announced that Henry would not be with the club beyond 2013 as the search for his replacement began.
9. Late surge brings unlikely finals berth
Henry’s sacking appeared to be the final insult in a truly horrible year, but something strange happened at that moment – the Cowboys learnt to win again. In fact, they kicked off their winning run with a stunning 30-12 win over competition leaders South Sydney, scored a convincing win away to Penrith and added more wins in their final four games against the Gold Coast, Newcastle, Cronulla and Wests Tigers. Incredibly, given that most had written them off, their finals spot was actually guaranteed before they took the field for their last regular season game against the Tigers.
10. Thurston fires
He was below his best for much of the season but after hitting top form in Games Two and Three of the State of Origin series, Johnathan Thurston returned to the Cowboys a different man. No wonder they made a late run. Thurston was brilliant in North Queensland’s six-game winning streak as he produced nine try assists, four line-breaks and a try. When he is at his best the Cowboys are a completely different side.