Gains: Kane Linnett (Roosters), Luke Harlen (Northern Pride), Robert Lui (Wests Tigers).
Losses: Willie Tonga (Eels), Leeson Ah Mau (Dragons), Will Tupou (Rugby Union), Clint Amos (retired), Isaak Ah Mau, Michael Bani (both released).
The NRL’s sleeping giants finally woke from hibernation in 2011. The Cowboys, after three years in rugby league’s wilderness, returned with a bang, recapturing the attacking flair and ball-playing brilliance everyone knew they still possessed on their way to a finals berth. And they could go a few steps better this season... with a bit of luck on and off the field.
At their best last season, North Queensland were unstoppable with ball in hand, beating premiership heavyweights Brisbane and Melbourne as well as eventual grand finalists the Warriors and Manly. Thirteen rounds into the competition the Cowboys had recorded nine wins and just three losses to sit equal second. Momentum in Townsville was building.
At the heart of their excitement machine was superstar playmaker Johnathan Thurston and livewire fullback Matt Bowen. The ‘JT’ and ‘Mango’ show returned to its glory days numerous times throughout the year: the elusive No.1 ran for the competition’s second-most kick-return metres (1508) and broke the third-most tackles (124); meanwhile the scheming halfback regaining his control across the park, as well as his deft passing and kicking games too, creating 26 line-break assists and 22 try assists. Put simply, on the back of their dynamic duo, they finally rediscovered top gear.
Then, with the North Queenslanders sitting pretty, it happened – the unthinkable. Co-captain and go-to man Thurston went down with a serious knee injury in the Maroons’ series-clinching victory in Origin III. Later diagnosed as a grade-two medial ligament tear with bone bruising, Thurston returned to the field five weeks later against the Broncos... but by the time he launched his comeback the momentum was lost and the wind previously billowing the Cowboys’ sails had died off completely. The club lost five of their final six NRL matches, including a second-half capitulation to the Sea Eagles in the opening week of the Finals Series.
In 2012 though, there’s an air of expectation in Townsville. The core group of players from the 2011 campaign remain – and some are among the hottest prospects in rugby league. Young players like Tariq Sims and Kalifa Faifai Loa, after breakout 2011 seasons, are proven match-winners – players who add spark to a team previously over-reliant on a sprinkling of stars. Fans no doubt can’t wait for March 3, when their fully fit team (apart from Ben Jones, due back mid-season from a pectoral injury) gets their first opportunity to exorcise the demons that no doubt plagued their off-season.
Perhaps the biggest date in the Cowboys’ year though, is March 21 (three rounds into the season) when the court case against new recruit Robert Lui is heard. Whether the former Wests Tigers No.7 is found guilty or innocent of the assault charges – related to an alleged assault on his partner – will have a massive impact on the Cowboys’ season. If he is cleared, expect him to play at halfback, pushing Thurston to five-eighth, creating what could well be the most dynamic attacking partnership in the NRL. If he is found guilty though, his likely absence will once again lump Thurston with the responsibility... and pin North Queensland’s attacking organisation on one player.
How They’ll Play It: North Queensland’s strength lies in their running game.... and in 2011 they once again proved one of league’s most dangerous attacking sides, ranking highly in a range of categories including points scored (averaging 22.2 – second most), tries scored (averaging four – second most), metres gained (averaging 1374.9 – fourth most), line-breaks (averaging 4.5 – equal third) and tackle-breaks (averaging 39.6 – third).
Expect more of the same in 2012, especially directly after strong charges from powerful forwards like Tariq Sims, co-captain Matthew Scott and bookend Scott Bolton. At full strength the Cowboys are the Harlem Globetrotters of the NRL, and with proven performers Brent Tate and Antonio Winterstein returning to the backline after heavily disrupted seasons in 2011, this year could prove even more entertaining.
Expect HUGE Things From: Barnstorming second-rower Tariq Sims burst onto the scene in 2011 with an unstoppable effort against the Raiders in Round 13. In that uber-powerful performance, Tariq (actually pronounced Teh-rick) showed what he is capable of – flattening the opposition with and without the football. His performances throughout 2011 did enough to impress Origin selectors, too – Ashton’s younger brother was also named in the Emerging Blues squad. If he can consistently deliver for his coach, team and fans in 2012 expect North Queensland to challenge for the finals series once again. Sims junior’s impact will have a massive bearing on his team’s season. A consistently strong season from the 193cm back-rower and the Cowboys’ 2011 Rookie of the Year will go a long way to pushing his team’s premiership claims.
Bonus Points: The Cowboys experienced a great first half to 2011... until injuries cut their backline down at their knees. At various stages the club soldiered on without stars Thurston, Winterstein and Brent Tate – huge blows for a club reliant on their senior players. This year they start with a fresh slate and a fit roster – something they couldn’t even muster last year after recruit Tate came to the club nursing an injured knee. After undergoing his third knee reconstruction, the outside back didn’t make his debut for the Cowboys until Round 19.
They’re Really Going To Miss: The Cowboys have experienced one of the more stable off-seasons in the NRL – only centre Willie Tonga, bound for Parramatta, is an NRL regular departing the club. However, the 28-year-old has been replaced by promising 23-year-old Kane Linnett from the Roosters. Linnett had an injury-interrupted 2011 campaign but the strapping Port Kembla junior brings grand final experience to the club from the 2010 decider. The squad’s stability augurs well for a strong 2012 campaign.
It’s Time To Deliver: Flying flankman Winterstein was lured to North Queensland in 2011 from the Broncos as a star signing... but injury cruelled his season, limiting him to just nine appearances. This year, however, he’ll be desperate to prove he’s not only 100 per cent fit following a broken jaw and torn pectoral muscle but still the potent attacking weapon he was in Brisbane. Before signing with the Cowboys, Winterstein experienced a quick rise to the top, bursting onto the scene as winger who offers superb support and tremendous try-scoring potential. North Queensland need him to recapture the fitness, form and confidence he demonstrated in 2010, when he was selected by New Zealand for the Four Nations campaign. Certainly the early signs are promising, with a strong showing and a try in their trial win over the Dragons.
How’s Their Depth: This season the Cowboys’ squad is a better-balanced outfit, no doubt something coach Neil Henry wanted to establish after past over-reliance on his stars. Now, if a star like ‘JT’ goes down, more experienced and capable replacements are at hand. The signing of Lui will have a big influence on the Cowboys’ season, but North Queensland fans will rest easy knowing their team’s most improved player of 2011 Ray Thompson and rising star Michael Morgan are in the wings ready to play No.6 or No.7 if needed.
Across the park the Cowboys possess a blend of proven performers such as 2011 Player of the Year Ashley Graham, with no-frills workers Bolton and Glenn Hall up front. Combine that with their superstars and some tremendous young talent in the under-20s, and theirs is a formidable line-up.
Under-20s: North Queensland finished agonisingly close to claiming their first Toyota Cup premiership in 2011, with a title-winning conversion attempt sailing wide in the dying seconds of the grand final against the Warriors. (The match went to golden point, with the Warriors kicking a field goal three minutes into extra time.)
This season the Cowboys want to go one better – and form since the start of the Toyota Cup in 2008 shows they’ve bettered their finishing position each season. In 2012 their Toyota Cup squad is again one of the strongest, with the NYC’s leading pointscorer and Junior Kangaroo Kyle Feldt and NRL-experienced forward Jason Taumalolo ones to watch. In the halves though, the Cowboys are searching for a new combination – Michael Morgan has been promoted to the NRL squad while homesick Gold Coast product Michael Parker-Walshe was granted a release from his contract.
New coach Todd Wilson, previously in charge of the Townsville Stingers’ under-18s, views the season as one of great opportunity.
“The team has had a great improvement the past few years and we’ve got to try to continue that the next few years,” Wilson says. “There are a few guys who played one or two games last year who are going to need to take that step up and become regulars. We need to get two new halves – young Sam Foster has been training the house down and his attitude is fantastic... and there are other guys at the club who can take [the responsibility in the halves] too. Luke Abdul-Rahman, Cliffy Beetham and Caleb Foster... sorting out a new halves pairing is our first priority... but right across the board the new guys who have come in have brought a fantastic work ethic and attitude to training.”
The Coach: No doubt Neil Henry would’ve enjoyed the return to the finals in 2011 – his previous two years in Townsville resulted in disappointing and disheartening 12th- and 15th-place finishes. Now with good form on the board, Henry can expect to remain in his Board’s good books... if his team performs as everyone expects. If so he’s safe as houses and he shouldn’t get to feel every degree of the Townsville heat.
Predicted Finish: Given even luck with injuries the top eight would seem a shoo-in. Slot them in at 6th.
Toyota NRL Dream Team view from NRL.com's Lone Scout
The gun: With his try assists, tackle busts, line breaks and goals, Jonathan Thurston will be in the running to be Toyota NRL Dream Team's highest-scoring half this season (until Origin at least).
The dark horse: Back-rower Jason Taumalolo broke into the side at the end of last season and could be a very handy squad player if he can keep a spot in the Cowboys' best 17.