Benjamin Everill, NRL.com
Position after 13 rounds: 8th
Competition points: 14
Just when it appeared the Cowboys had worked out their inconsistency issues, they finish the first half of the year with back-to-back losses. As the Origin period starts to bite on the club they find themselves smack bang in the middle of a crossroads. Will they ride through the tough times and then make a push towards the top four and the finals... or will they falter and fall back into the difficult dogfight around the periphery of the play-offs zone?
As usual, plenty will sit on the shoulders of Johnathan Thurston. Can he take his team by the scruff of the neck and direct them to glory, or will the weight of expectations and the burden of injuries cruel their season?
The signs weren’t great for North Queensland early on: they started with an uninspiring loss at home – shut out 18-0 by the Gold Coast Titans who, with all due respect, started their 2012 campaign terribly. (They lost their next five and seven of their next eight.)
As fate would have it the Cowboys finished the front side of the year losing to the Titans again, although this time their opponents were coming off the back of successive wins.
It has been an uninspiring past month for a team rated top-four chances at the beginning of the year. So where to now?
Are Things Going to Plan? Three weeks ago you may have said yes, but with the recent losses to the Wests Tigers and Titans, and just a two-point win over the Panthers, the Cowboys have slipped to eighth and now have seven chasing clubs behind them within four competition points. After the poor opening game the Cowboys took down the Broncos, something not many have managed this year – but each of their six other victories came against teams who are not in the top eight at this halfway point of the year.
Clearly they need to aim up against the better teams, or they may find themselves watching those sides in September from their lounge rooms.
The good news is the side is scoring points: with 24 a game, they are ranked third in the NRL. Plus, they continue to put themselves in good position to score points, making 1412 metres a game – again ranked third in the NRL.
On the other side of the coin they are leaking a few too many points. They’re not awful by any means – ranked ninth at 19.2 a game – but it’s a far cry from the Storm’s miserly 11.9. Also, they are conceding 1342 metres a game (eighth most), which is eating into their impressive gains.
Injury Front… The Cowboys have used 25 players through this point of the year (compared with 22 at the corresponding stage in 2011), with eight members playing all 13 weeks. Plus, James Tamou and Johnathan Thurston have played in all 12 games they were eligible for, missing just the Origin week.
In a stroke of extreme bad luck Tariq Sims broke his leg just when he was knocking on the door of New South Wales selection and will miss the rest of the year. Matthew Scott had some weeks out but has found his way back to lead the pack. And energetic hooker James Segeyaro has just been ruled out for perhaps the season with a serious ankle injury – although he might make a return in the finals should the Cowboys make it and need him.
If Only… They were able to continue their recent momentum and play better at home. The climate is always different in Townsville but the Cowboys never seem to make it the fortress it should be. They have won just three of their six home games so far and must improve the 50 per cent ratio to contend in this competition.
With three straight wins from Round 9 to 11 the side appeared to be pushing towards cementing a place in the top four – but they were poor against the Wests Tigers (26-18) before being borderline dismal against the Titans (28-12) in Round 13 when they received a glut of possession but couldn’t press home the advantage.
Who’s Flying… Ashley Graham has crossed for 13 tries from as many games to lead the NRL – he also averages 114.6 metres a game.
James Tamou has well and truly earned his place in the Australian and New South Wales teams – he’s been a machine in the forwards. The massive unit averages 157.9 metres this year and adds 27 tackles each week.
Matthew Scott has been solid as usual, averaging 123.9 metres and 26 tackles. Matt Bowen has been pretty dependable, adding nine line-breaks, five line-break assists and eight try assists, ensuring Thurston hasn’t had to shoulder all of the attacking workload.
Needs to Lift… This is not criticism, rather merely an opinion: Thurston is in great form… but he needs to be in career-best form if the Cowboys are to be a serious threat in 2012. ‘JT’ has tallied an impressive 16 line-break assists and 15 try assists – some of the best attacking figures in the NRL – but he’ll need to assert Andrew Johns-like dominance if the Cowboys are to get onto the premiers podium on the last Sunday in September.
Also, he needs more help from Ray Thompson, although trying to fit seamlessly into a role with stars Thurston and Bowen in the backline cannot be easy for Thompson. He has just three try assists for the year and the team would gain better balance if he were able to up his numbers.
All Cowboys players need to take care to avoid adding to a crippling error count – the side makes the fourth-most bungles each week (11.7 on average).
Cowboys coach Neil Henry tells NRL.com… “We had three wins in a row and had a bit of momentum and to have a tight win against Penrith up at home without our Origin guys was good… but we were disappointed with our performances since.
“We need to bounce back from that. We’re a work in progress – but we can’t keep saying that. We’re halfway through the season... we want to be a top-four team – like a few others – but we need to start winning a few games.”
Predicted Finish… The Cowboys haven’t shown enough form against the top sides to instill huge confidence in them going forward. Their draw right after Origin is tough, meaning the three games between their two byes (Rounds 14 and 18) – against the Broncos, Raiders and Warriors (in New Zealand) – will likely define their season.
Their final four rounds (against the Warriors at home, Dragons, Knights and Sharks) could be their chance to shine though, and we expect they will stay around the top-eight bubble and find a home just inside the finals. We’ll say 7th-8th.
Under-20s… It’s not the season the young guns wanted to this point, having won just three games and sitting down in 14th on the ladder. Barring a miracle run they are already done for this year. Jason Taumalolo is playing mainly first grade now – which has hurt the size and skill of the Cowboys pack. Zac Santo has crossed for 10 tries, a nice effort, while prop John Puna has ground out 118 metres every game.