Position after 13 rounds: 4th
Competition points: 20
At the beginning of the year we here at NRL.com said we weren’t going to be sucked in by the Cowboys again. No more false dawns, like in previous years when glorious sunrises turned to grey skies and torrential downpours by mid morning (as in Round 6).
But we are now believers.
The new-look Cowboys are ticking over like a well-oiled machine. The deadwood is gone, the recruits are all exceeding expectations and emerging players who might have had question marks over their abilities have answered the call.
Importantly, Matthew Bowen is injury-free for the first time in more than two years and Johnathan Thurston isn’t the ‘angry ant’ he’s been in recent seasons.
We should have seen the writing on the wall when they defeated the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium in Round 1; trouble was, we hadn’t figured on the Broncos being the yardstick they’ve proven to be, so the Cowboys’ form went a little unnoticed.
Sure, their Round 2 defeat to the Knights at home had us nodding knowingly but since then they’ve been standouts. And they’ve made Dairy Farmers Stadium a stronghold, with a 6-1 record including an unbeaten run from Round 3 when they smashed the Storm.
Last week not even a 22-nil deficit after just 26 minutes against the Raiders was an obstacle, the Cowboys running riot to triumph 40-24.
Since their grand final appearance in 2005 they’ve managed finals footy just once, when preliminary finalists in 2007. But this year they could really make some noise.
Are Things Going To Plan? Considering they lost high-profile off-season recruit Brent Tate for the year (knee reconstruction) before even a ball was kicked, coach Neil Henry would be ecstatic. Henry was under pressure coming into 2011 but that seems a long time ago now.
Key to the Cowboys’ success has been their attack. Impressively they rank No.1 with 25 points and 4.3 tries each game. They’re also tops for line-breaks (5.2) and tackle-breaks (42.4) and are second behind the Dragons for all-territory (1401.2 metres). Their offloads are off the pace – only 11.6 to rank 9th – but hey, who needs to get the ball away when you have runners in free space so often?
They’ve shown impressive discipline too, conceding just 10.3 penalties a game (second fewest).
A look at last year’s stats shows how far they’ve come: 17.7 points (14th), three tries (14th), 1273 metres (13th).
Injury Front… The Cowboys have only been asked to call upon 22 players – along with the Sea Eagles the fewest used.
Brent Tate aside they’ve been relatively unaffected – although they need to cover for Willie Tonga who is expected to miss another six weeks with a shoulder injury sustained in Origin I.
Winger Michael Bani played just two games before suffering an ankle injury but that simply gave dynamic Kalifa Faifai Loa (six tries, 44 tackle-breaks and 137 metres a game) the opportunity to grab his chance.
If Only… They had managed to crack the Dragons after five repeat sets in their Round 9 clash at Kogarah instead of Brett Morris taking an intercept and racing 90 metres to stamp a decisive 12-point turnaround. The Dragons led just 6-nil at the time and the Cowboys were more than holding their own. Certainly a Dragons defeat would have done wonders for the other teams in the comp. And of course the Cowboys.
Before that, a 22-20 loss to the Eels in Round 4 could prove important come season’s end; the Eels had suffered 14-point defeats to the Rabbitohs and Panthers in their previous two games.
Who’s Flying… Dallas Johnson’s arrival has given the Cowboys’ pack some much-needed defensive clout. He may have been overlooked for Origin I and II but he’s proven he hasn’t lost any of his Storm-days dedication, making 44.3 tackles a game (fourth most in the comp).
But Thurston and Bowen remain their go-to men, so much so that fans will have their fingers crossed nothing happens to them over the next three months. Thurston has scored six tries and leads the league for try assists (17) and line-break assists (21). Bowen leads the comp for tackle-breaks with 74, plus he’s scored five tries and conjured five try assists and five line-break assists as well as an average 117-metre gain.
Needs to Lift… Despite Johnson’s input defence remains a concern. Last year the Cowboys missed 37 tackles a game – more than just two other sides. This year they’re falling off 35.4 tackles a game with just three sides worse. It may not be enough to see them fall from finals calculations but it will burn them in a game that matters come September. Those who need to do better include hooker Aaron Payne, who tallies 30 tackles a game but misses three, while big-hitting rookie Tariq Sims misses 2.5, as does Johnson.
Coach Neil Henry tells NRL.com… “I’d have to say we’ve rated an eight out of 10 to date. I’ve been happy with our improvements defensively, which has been a real focus for us, but there’s still some improvement to be made in that area. I think our ability to score points has been good, with the new players really gelling. I think in particular the combination of Matthew Bowen and Johnathan Thurston, and also Aaron Payne, have been really good. The continuity with those three guys has been important, and Ray Thomson is holding up his side of the bargain too. I’m very happy with those guys. As for surprises, I think Tariq Sims is the obvious one. He started the year as our 18th man and then played the next 11 games… he’s got a long way to go but his attitude has been outstanding. Kalifa Faifai Loa and Ray Thomson are the other young guys who’ve served us well.”
Predicted Finish… The Cowboys have already played the ‘big four’ of the Broncos, Dragons, Sea Eagles and Storm for three wins and a loss, so they’ve confirmed their finals credentials. They meet Manly again in Round 14 and the Broncos in Round 23; other than that they have a great run through to September.
If Thurston gets through the Origin period unscathed the top four beckons – maybe even a coveted top-two spot.
Under-20s… The junior Cowboys have stamped themselves premiership contenders with nine wins to sit fourth on the ladder. Five of their victories have been by more than 13 points and they have a superb 6-1 home record. Of some concern to coach Kristian Woolf though is that all their defeats have been by more than 13 points – including a 46-24 thumping from the Broncos in Round 1 and a surprise 29-16 home loss to the Eels in Round 10. They’ve been best served by centre Moses Panai who is their leading tryscorer with eight. He also ranks fifth in the TC for tackle busts (64). Punishing prop Jason Taumalolo is averaging 15 hit-ups and 142 metres a game. Five-eighth Michael Parker-Walshe has shown excellent skills (10 try assists, fifth most).