Mid-season Report Card
The sleeping giants of the 2009 season are more than likely the Cowboys. They started the season poorly but have quietly climbed the competition ladder – to be inside the finals zone without even hitting their straps yet.
New coach Neil Henry brought with him a new style – and some unavoidable teething problems – but as each week passes the kinks get ironed out and the Cowboys look more and more deadly.
When their attack clicks on a regular basis they will be lethal (they already boast the best differential in the NRL) and if Matt Bowen can reach the heights those up north have become accustomed to, then this team could be good enough to go all the way.
But when you pin your hopes on ‘ifs’ it can be a slippery slope… and Neil Henry and his troops are well aware they need to prove themselves worthy of such a lofty prediction.
They are never likely to be the competition’s best defenders but they still need to steel themselves for the tough games if they are to be the real deal.
Are Things Going To Plan? Neil Henry came to the club looking to put a leash on the side and add some structure. But he has had to make sure it is a very long leash in order to get the results after a slow, poor start.
By attempting to pigeonhole Johnathan Thurston to one side and Matt Bowen on the other the Cowboys lost the one thing they had going for them: unpredictability. But the fact Bowen is still slowly finding his feet following a serious knee injury, plus some rethinking from Henry, has freed up Thurston – and the wins have followed.
The side won just one of its first five games but from that point on they have won six of seven and are moving up the ladder with some authority.
Winning against an in-form Dragons and then backing it up with a mauling of the Warriors in New Zealand were highlights, as was their pummelling of Souths.
They are the best converters in the competition when it comes to turning line breaks into tries so if they make more breaks it stands to reason they’ll cause more headaches. Their defence has solidified also, leaking just 200 points to be ranked fourth strongest, but the real test will come with a very tough run home.
Injury Front… The Cowboys have used 25 players at the halfway point of the year, although injury has not been a major concern. Clint Amos is out for the season with a knee injury but the side has 13 players who have played double-figure matches, so they haven’t been cursed.
If Only… The Cowboys suffered close losses to Brisbane (19-18), the Raiders (23-18) and the Titans (14-10), all of which they could have won with a bit more application at crucial times. They also performed poorly against the Eels (28-18), which was well out of character. Considering they are only a win off the teams running first, this Cowboys side could easily be leading the way. And they may just be doing so in the near future if they keep the improvement coming.
Who’s Flying… Thurston brushed off early cobwebs to take charge around representative football time and his staring role for the Kangaroos against New Zealand was just the catalyst his club side needed.
He has been back to his dominant best since and has now racked up 13 try assists, six tries, 14 line-break assists and five line breaks. The rest of the squad are performing admirably, particularly Luke O’Donnell who has regained the mongrel and skill he was missing for a while. He is gaining 123 metres a match and is defending with venom. He also has five line breaks and three tries.
Needs To Lift… The Cowboys could use a better collective effort in getting the hard yards both across the ground and from the boot. As a group they are playing well and while the offensive input of centres Willie Tonga and Ashley Graham and fullback Bowen could raise a little, it’s the metres gained where the side could really use some impetus. Their 1307 metres gained a game is reasonable but in the back end of teams but the 418 metres a match gained from kicks is easily the lowest in the competition. A solid kicking game can really change the tempo of a match and if the Cowboys can work harder at hemming teams in their quarter, they will be gain an extra arrow for their quiver.
Neil Henry Tells NRL.com… “I have been really happy with the last six or seven weeks after we had a slow start, but we have had a seven-and-five home-and-away split and that will turn around in the back half of the year, so we need to work hard at maintaining some momentum. We have some real challenges ahead of us with away trips against the Dragons, Bulldogs, Titans, Storm, Knights and even the Wests Tigers at Leichhardt, so we need to stay focussed. Our defence has stepped up and we have conceded the fourth-least amount of points, so if we maintain that I’ll be happy. Touch wood we get through the Origin period unscathed, as being relatively injury-free has helped us to this point.”
Predicted Finish… They will be in the finals but just where they finish remains to be seen. They are shooting for a top-five finish if their defence can hold away from home. Expect 3rd to 6th.
Under-20s… The Cowboys’ under-20s squad hits the halfway point in 12th spot on the ladder but they are just one competition point away from eighth position, leaving the door open for a late-season charge.
They have been very inconsistent and haven’t been able to string wins together at any stage yet this year but there are some promising signs from players like hooker James Segeyaro and lock Dane Hogan.