PERHAPS with the exception of the Melbourne Storm, no club welcomed New Year’s Day, 2011 with as much fervour and optimism as North Queensland.
This once-lethal attacking outfit has become a shadow of its former self over the past two seasons and ploughed new depths both on and off the field during the forgettable year that was 2010.
On the field they won just five games all season – only Melbourne’s salary cap punishment allowing them to avoid the ignominy of their first wooden spoon since 2000.
Off the field they were battered by injury and saw their year draw to a close on another low when captain Johnathan Thurston was arrested and charged with being a public nuisance in mid-September.
It literally couldn’t get any worse, but the club has been quick to take action with a broom swept through the playing ranks.
Among those told to find a new home in 2011 were Willie Mason, Luke O’Donnell, Carl Webb, Ty Williams, Steve Southern and Anthony Watts; consequently the Cowboys are set to boast a new-look forward pack this season after ranking among the worst in the comp last year for both metres gained and metres conceded.
The front office hasn’t escaped scrutiny either, with football manager Dean Lance punted and CEO Peter Parr demoted to Lance’s old role. Former Cowboys board member Peter Jourdain takes over as the new CEO.
North Queensland has been busy in the player market with Dallas Johnson, Ashton Sims, Antonio Winterstein, Gavin Cooper, Ben Jones and Kangaroos centre Brent Tate among their acquisitions. Former Manly back-rower Glenn Hall also joins the fold after two years with Bradford in the English Super League.
However, it seems their bad luck hasn’t ended just yet with, Tate suffering a serious knee injury in last year’s Four Nations final that will likely see him miss the entire 2011 season.
It’s a harsh slice of luck for the Cowboys, who had recruited Tate to bolster a right-side defence that had leaked a mammoth 60 tries last year but which will now have to find another option.
How They’ll Play It… The Cowboys remain an unknown quantity this season with a new-look forward pack and changes to key personnel across the board. There is no doubt that their primary focus will be toughening up through the middle, where missed tackles and a basic lack of fight were worryingly evident throughout 2011. However, if they get it right, they boast a backline that ranks among the most fearsome in the NRL.
Watch for Thurston and fullback Matt Bowen to punish opposition errors – back when the Cowboys weren’t so dysfunctional they rated as the NRL’s most dangerous side in broken play situations.
Expect Plenty From… Matt Bowen. Two knee reconstructions in the past three years almost ended his career and he struggled at times when he returned in 2010. However, he showed glimpses of his best towards the back end of the year and will be keen to prove that he has plenty more to offer. He remains a key man for the Cowboys.
They’re Going to Really Miss… Luke O’Donnell. Injury and suspension problems had the Cowboys questioning O’Donnell’s value last season – particularly after his moment-of-madness brain snap during State of Origin II in which he produced a spear tackle and then a head-butt in the space of about 30 seconds – but he remains a quality player. Despite the side’s woes in 2011, O’Donnell averaged 115 metres and 32 tackles.
Time To Stand Up … Johnathan Thurston. When he wasn’t battling an ongoing shoulder injury that saw him come in and out of the North Queensland side, Thurston looked a frustrated man last season and his form rarely reached its potential. He is one man who can almost single-handedly drag the Cowboys back into premiership contention and the club needs him at his best.
Coach Watch… The knives are out for Neil Henry after two woeful seasons with the Cowboys and he must be thanking his lucky stars that he survived the club’s off-season purge. Although he remains safe for the time being, it would be difficult to imagine Henry seeing out the season should North Queensland get off to another slow start.
They’ll Be Boosted By… The influx of promising young talent including star Brisbane winger Antonio Winterstein and Dragons trio Ricky Thorby, Kalifa Fai-Fai Loa and Blake Leary. An injection of enthusiasm is exactly what the doctor ordered.
Predicted Finish … 9th.
Toyota Cup … Having finished fourth in the regular season in 2010, the Cowboys have high hopes that they can go all the way this time around. They welcome back the vast majority of last year’s Toyota Cup squad with the likes of Alex Elisala, Kyle Feldt, Moses Pangai, Michael Parker Walsh, Sam Hoare and Callum Haywood all certain to be better off another 12 months’ experience. Impressive young half Michael Morgan is also eligible and although the Cowboys expect him to feature heavily in the NRL side he will no doubt drop back down from time to time to lend a helping hand. Expect them to give the Toyota Cup title a shake.
Gains… Dallas Johnson (Catalans), Brent Tate (Warriors), Antonio Winterstein (Broncos), Ashton Sims (Broncos), Tariq Sims (Broncos), Ricky Thorby (Dragons), Kalifa Fai-Fai Loa (Dragons), Blake Leary (Dragons), Gavin Cooper (Panthers), Ben Jones (Roosters), Glenn Hall (Bradford).
Losses… Luke O’Donnell (Huddersfield), Willie Mason (Hull KR), Anthony Watts (Roosters), Steve Rapira (Warriors), Arana Taumata (Panthers), Ty Williams (retired), Carl Webb (Eels), John Williams (Sharks), Steve Southern (Knights), Ben Harris (retired).