NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS - 2009 Season Preview

<p>ONLY percentages came between the Cowboys and another wooden spoon last season – but there is certainly cause for optimism going into season 2009.</p><p> Any side that boasts Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen in the ranks cannot be discounted of success, such is that stellar duo’s ability to influence results. </p><p> The Cowboys also have a new coach in the highly recommended and respected Neil Henry, giving them a fresh start… and a chance to rid the demons of the prior 12 months.</p><p> Add to that the astute buys of Antonio Kaufusi, Manase Manuokafoa and Willie Tonga and the Cowboys could easily rejoin the game’s elite.</p><p> <strong>How They’ll Play It</strong></p> With all-out attack. Henry showed at Canberra he is prepared to win games by scoring points from anywhere on the field; with the likes of Bowen and Thurston he has plenty of firepower at his disposal.</p><p> It’s not just the backline that has attacking power; with Carl Webb, Manuokafoa and Luke O’Donnell in the pack the big fellas can also put points on.</p><p> The Cowboys have proven in the past that their attack is good enough to overcome shortcomings in defence and while they won’t put up a white flag in ‘D’ they won’t be the NRL’s best defenders. We’re prepared to suggest you can put the house on that.</p><p> <strong>Keep An Eye On</strong></p> Young forward recruit Mitchell Achurch. Signed from the Wests Tigers’ Toyota Cup squad, Achurch might not make first grade this season but he certainly has some potential to go with his massive frame. Standing just under two metres tall and weighing in at 102 kilograms, the Leichhardt junior is a mammoth 20-year-old second-rower. </p><p> <strong>They’ll Really Miss</strong></p> The unheralded but solid Ray Cashmere.</p><p> The big prop was the Cowboys’ highest metre-eater in 2008, averaging 121 metres a game, playing every game. The Cowboys have always been a side that struggles to gain yards and taking away their best toiler may have left them with a bigger void than they had anticipated.</p><p> Cashmere might not have been the flashiest player in the NRL but he’ll be well and truly missed, with Salford in the UK benefiting greatly. </p><p> <strong>It’s Time To Stand Up</strong></p> Travis Burns. Touted as a crucial buy last season, Burns was supposed to be the perfect fit for Cowboys skipper and halfback Johnathan Thurston.</p><p> But the plucky five-eighth failed to wow the fans and spent considerable time suspended. Burns, formally of Cronulla and Manly, needs to find his niche in the Cowboys’ game plan or he faces banishment to the local competition – especially given Grant Rovelli’s (ex-Warriors) recruitment. </p><p> Usually a rough-and-tumble style player, Burns needs to keep a lid on his emotions and just ensure he is providing a believable and viable attacking option outside of Thurston and Matt Bowen.</p><p> <strong>Coach Watch</strong></p> Neil Henry returns to North Queensland, (he was an assistant to Graham Murray before he took charge of Canberra) with a tremendous reputation.</p><p> As an assistant to Mal Meninga in Queensland Origin camp, and awarded the Dally M Coach of the Year award, Henry has already forged himself as a coach on the rise and it would take a Cowboy implosion for him to be cast adrift early.</p><p> Last season Henry helped an undermanned Raiders outfit storm into the semis, so the sky might be the limit with Johnathan Thurston and co. You would think the only way is up for the Cowboys after they finished a dismal 15th last year and as such, Henry should be safe.</p><p> <strong>They’re All The Better For</strong></p> Willie Tonga. Tonga is a match winner and outside Thurston and Bowen his game could return to its peak days when he was a Queensland Origin and Australian Test rep.</p><p> Should the former Bulldog actually be over his knee injuries then it could be a massive year for the Cherbourg junior.</p><p> The acquisitions of Manuokafoa and Kaufusi are also key as they add not just much-needed size – but size with skill and speed.</p><p> <strong>Predicted Finish</strong></p> The reality with the Cowboys is they need a fit Thurston and Bowen “show” to be successful.</p><p> With them, they are top-four potentials as they can turn Dairy Farmers Stadium into a fortress. </p><p> But without them they could once again fight it out for the wooden spoon. Let’s look at the glass-half-full scenario and suggest they’ll finish between fourth and eighth, returning to the finals.</p><p> <strong>Under-20s</strong></p> The Cowboys’ under-20s took the very first Toyota Cup wooden spoon home with them in 2008 so they’ll be hoping for a better result this time around. The local kids have had the chance to get used to tough, week-in week-out football and should be better for it.</p><p> Some players like Obe Geia, Sam Bowie and Ray Thompson return for another crack under new coach Kristian Woolf while the Cowboys have also added some decent signings like back-rower Troyden Watene and prop Ron Alovili. <strong>New Breed</strong></p> Cowboys five-eighth Ben Cronin is into his second year of a teaching degree majoring in economics – and while the likeable Queenslander doesn’t claim to have all the answers, he does hope to become the solution at pivot.</p><p> Keep an eye out for more on Ben Cronin when NRL.com brings you New Breed profiles in the coming weeks.</p>