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ONCE rated amongst the NRL’s great entertainers, the demise of the North Queensland Cowboys over the past two years has been as sudden as it has surprising.<br><br>Runners-up in 2005 and semi-finalists in 2007, they seemingly hit the wall midway through the 2008 season and have struggled ever since.<br><br>Even the sacking of former coach Graham Murray and the arrival of the highly respected Neil Henry last season couldn’t halt the slide.<br><br>So what’s gone wrong? Unfortunately there are no easy answers.<br><br>Certainly injury has played a role. Fullback Matt Bowen is a shadow of his former self since suffering a series of serious knee injuries over the past 18 months while the loss of veteran hooker Aaron Payne last year signalled the end of the Cowboys’ finals challenge.<br><br>But the problem seems more ingrained than that, with a distinct loss of confidence seemingly impinging upon the side’s attacking strengths.<br><br>That’s not to say that they can’t turn it all around, because at full strength North Queensland boast an intimidating forward pack and one of the most lethal backlines in the NRL – led by Queensland and Australian halfback Johnathan Thurston.<br><br>And the dramatic, last-minute arrival of former NSW and Australian forward Willie Mason will provide plenty of punch alongside representative players Luke O’Donnell and Carl Webb.<br><br>The Cowboys began poorly last season – losing four of their first five – and never really recovered. <br><br>If they can do the opposite this season and regain their confidence they have every reason to aim for a much-needed finals return.<br><br><b>Their Keys To Success…</b> At their best they were renowned for the brilliance of their ad-lib football, so it may come as a surprise to learn that until they lost hooker Aaron Payne to a season-ending shoulder injury in Round 17 last year the Cowboys were the most efficient side in the Telstra Premiership inside their opponents’ 20-metre line.<br><br>Payne’s absence seriously impacted North Queensland’s conversion rate and over the remaining nine rounds the side slid from fifth all the way to 12th on the competition ladder.<br><br>In the end, having both Payne and Bowen on the sidelines proved too much for the Cowboys to handle. <br><br>When attacking the line, the speed of Payne’s service combined with the sublime attacking skills of Bowen and Thurston make them a nightmare to defend against. And if Mason knuckles down he can reap the benefits of his playmakers when close to the line.<br><br>Similarly, the Cowboys were once the masters of scoring points directly from an opposition error on the back of the same trio.That points towards one key mission for Neil Henry and his staff in 2010: make sure Thurston, Bowen and Payne stay fit.<br><br><b>Expect Plenty From…</b> Willie Tonga. Injury has been cruel to Tonga since he burst onto the scene in such dramatic fashion for the Bulldogs in 2004. A Queensland and Australian representative that year (as well as winning the premiership), he was barely cited in the following years as a series of knee and shoulder injuries conspired to threaten his career.<br><br>But his move north last season suggested better times ahead.<br><br>It’s a shame that as he finally began to rediscover his old form, many of his team-mates dropped like flies around him but he still did enough to earn a State of Origin recall and will be looking forward to a huge 2010.<br><br>If he continues to improve he looms as a real weapon out wide.<br><br><b>They’re Really Going To Miss…</b> The Matt Bowen of old. That’s not to say that he won’t be back to his best, but it will take some time – and question marks always linger over any player that suffers a series of serious knee injuries.<br><br>Will Bowen regain his spark? Will he lose that blistering speed off the mark?<br><br>Time will tell but there is no doubt that the Cowboys are nowhere near as fearsome without him.<br><br><b>Time To Stand Up…</b> Carl Webb. One of the NRL’s great enigmas, Webb is blessed with talent but not always with desire.<br><br>On his day he is a genuine wrecking ball – almost unstoppable when charging at the line and with a skill set most halves would be proud of. But a lack of consistency has plagued Webb’s career.<br><br>Having now missed the finals two years running and with fellow prop Shane Tronc off to join Wakefield, the Cowboys need Webb to stand up and be counted.<br><br><b>Coach Watch…</b> It takes time for any coach to make his mark and it’s hard to see Neil Henry being shown the door early unless 2010 becomes a complete debacle.<br><br>Formerly an assistant under Graham Murray before two impressive seasons in Canberra, Henry was far and away the Cowboys’ first choice to take over last season and the club remains confident that he is the man to resurrect their side.<br><br><b>They’re All The Better For…</b> The arrival of Willie Mason.<br><br>The towering forward has had his off-field problems in the past and left both the Bulldogs and Roosters in acrimonious circumstances. But there is no doubting his ability – at his best Mason is a destructive weapon capable of skittling a defensive line.<br><br>More importantly he adds depth to a club that struggled with injury in 2009.<br><br><b>Predicted Finish…</b> Doubts still linger over the Cowboys after two disappointing seasons. Although brilliant on their day, they can also seem a rabble at times and can appear bereft of ideas if the brilliance of Thurston and co. isn’t doing the trick.<br><br>And at the end of the day, it is Thurston, Bowen and Payne who hold the key.<br><br>If the classy trio can stay fit, North Queensland should be aiming to finish comfortably nestled in the top eight… but without them 2010 could prove to be another long year.<br><br><b>Toyota Cup…</b> They finished one spot out of the eight last season and coach Kristian Woolf is confident his squad of youngsters will move up the ladder in 2010 – or as confident as an Under-20s coach can be, at least.<br><br>With an almost identical group of players, Woolf believes that the extra year’s experience will prove invaluable not only to his own goals but the club in general.<br><br>“Our number one goal is for the Under-20s to be a development squad into the NRL and we’re giving our kids the skills and knowledge they need to play first grade,” he said.<br><br>“We’re all competitive and we want to win as many games as we can but more importantly we want first grade to be an incentive for them.”<br><br>The Cowboys have high hopes for playmaker Ray Thompson – who made his NRL debut late last year – and Willie Tupou who has joined the club from Brisbane.
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