Nigel Wall, NRL.com
1. The Thurston experiment
If you thought Johnathan Thurston was devastating with the ball in hand as a halfback, just wait until he pulls on the No.6 jersey for the Cowboys this season. North Queensland signalled the radical shift when they snapped up Robert Lui after the troublesome No.7 was cut loose by the Wests Tigers late last year. Subject to the outcome of his assault case, due for hearing in late March, Lui could form a halves partnership with ‘JT’ even more potent than the one he shared with Benji Marshall.
For years Thurston has been the fulcrum of the Cowboys’ attack – and there have been times when he’s tried too hard to spark things and it has affected his form. But with more room to operate one position out at five-eighth 2012 could be a phenomenal year for the 28-year-old, with claims on the Queensland and Australian Test No.6 also his for the taking. Last year Thurston tied with Marshall for most line-break assists (25) and ranked fourth for try assists (16). Expect his trademark show-and-go to get a real workout as he drifts towards the edges looking to take advantage of tired opposition forwards looking for a breather. Also expect him to take a leaf out of Darren Lockyer’s book and shift the point of the attack down the short blindside, linking with explosive runners like Tariq Sims. His switch will give the Cowboys a new dimension in attack.
2. Kane Linnett for Willie Tonga
On face value, Queensland Origin representative and Kangaroos Four Nations tourist Willie Tonga’s departure for Parramatta leaves the Cowboys with a gaping hole to fill at centre – but they’ve made an astute purchase in former Rooster Kane Linnett. The 22-year-old had an injury-interrupted 2011, playing just 13 games, but nevertheless impressed with his powerful running (averaging 100 metres gained, plus eight line-breaks and 26 tackle busts for the season). Linnett’s combination with Kalifa Faifai Loa down the left edge of the field may prove one of the success stories of the year, while skipper Thurston will also relish putting a straight-running Linnett into space.
3. A fit Matthew Bowen
It’s no surprise the Cowboys’ return to the semi-finals last year coincided with the return to full fitness of their strike weapon Matthew Bowen. The elusive fullback took the field in all 25 Cowboys games, making 13 line-breaks and ranking eighth for both try assists (17) and line-break assists (13). But he really excelled when fielding opposition kicks and ended the season with the most kick-return metres (1411) by any player. While opponents may have grasped him from time to time they found it near impossible to halt his progress, with his 124 tackle-breaks the third most behind Akuila Uate and Billy Slater. That’s some company. Importantly, the emergence of blockbusting Kalifa Faifai Loa and Tariq Sims has taken some of the pressure off Bowen as the Cowboys’ mainstay line-breaker; now he can sit back and be a little more selective with his attacking injections. Which should help the nearly 30-year-old’s longevity in the game.
4. Tariq Sims
Tariq Sims, a volatile mixture of Sonny Bill Williams, Willie Mason and Brad Clyde in their primes, is unlucky his maiden NRL year coincided with Daly Cherry-Evans’s – he would have been the standout Rookie award winner any other season. The 21-year-old picked up where he left off after winning the 2010 Toyota Cup Player of the Year award with 20 crunching games for the Cowboys in 2011. Even midway through the season he’d earned a reputation as a player not to be messed with: he’s a brutal blend of tungsten-tough defence and runaway freight train attack. Sims averaged just 54 minutes of game time in 2011 but still recorded some outrageous stats, including 66 bullocking tackle-breaks plus 21 offloads, 85 metres gained and 22 tackles. Those numbers will only increase when coach Neil Henry hands him more minutes this season. And Sims has ‘Origin’ written all over him: Ricky Stuart named him in the Emerging Blues’ squad earlier this month and we sense he’ll be donning the New South Wales jersey at some stage during this year’s series.
5. A dream start
The Cowboys rode into the semi-finals last year on the back of a formidable record at Dairy Farmers Stadium, winning nine games and losing just three. If they’re to figure prominently again in 2012 they’ll need to repeat that intensity on the home front. Certainly they get that opportunity, with four of their opening six games scheduled in Townsville featuring clashes against the Titans, Eels and Sharks. (But… if they’re not firmly in the top eight before the new, dedicated Representative Round on April 20-22 they may find themselves playing catch-up footy very early on. Perish the thought.)