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Losses: 10
Position: 7th
Home Record: 9 wins, 3 losses 
Away Record: 5 wins, 7 losses

Losses: 1
Position: 7th 
Best Winning Streak: 4 (Round 5, 6, 7 and 8)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Rounds 22-24)
Players Used: 28 (11th most)
Player of the Year: Ashley Graham
Tries Scored: (After 26 rounds) 4 per game – second most
Tries Conceded: (After 26 rounds) 3.3 – equal seventh

After winning just five games in 2010, little was expected of North Queensland this season. But the Cowboys bucked the experts and in 2011 showed they do, in fact, have the players and skill to be a premiership force. 

North Queensland announced their intentions on the opening night of the competition with a courageous and determined victory against the Broncos in Brisbane and in the following rounds also thumped Melbourne and beat the Sea Eagles.

In 2011 the Cowboys’ big guns, Johnathan Thurston and Matt Bowen, starting firing again, reigniting their electric combination which had led the club to the finals in 2005 and 2007. But it is the emergence of young stars in the backline and the forward pack that’ll excite fans the most and keep the diehards coming back to Dairy Farmers Stadium in 2012 and beyond. 

While a Finals Week One exit won’t get too many Cowboys fans jumping for joy, a return to the playoffs and the exciting young talent prospering in Townsville will leave fans with a sense of optimism for the coming seasons.

Where They Excelled: North Queensland continued to prove themselves as arguably the league’s most dangerous attacking side. The Cowboys showed themselves to be the NRL’s most lethal offensive side – in 2011 they ranked highly in a range of categories including points scored (averaging 22.2 – second), tries scored (averaging 4 – second), metres gained (averaging 1374.9 – fourth), line-breaks (averaging 4.5 – equal third) and tackle-breaks (averaging 39.6 – third). North Queensland’s attacking potency was highlighted in massive come-from-behind victories against Canberra in Round 13 and Parramatta in Round 10 (where they recorded an equal season-high number of line-breaks – 11) – the Cowboys proved they’re a difficult side to keep down with the deft playmaking skill of Johnathan Thurston and electric ball-running of Matt Bowen.

Where They Struggled: The Cowboys struggled for consistency defensively and their inability to stop the opposition attacks cost them dearly as the competition entered crunch time. Throughout the season, North Queensland battled without the football, conceding significant scores in losses to Newcastle (Round 2 – 34-22), Manly (Round 14 – 24-4), Penrith (Round 16 – 30-20), Wests Tigers (Round 19 – 38-18), Brisbane (Round 23 – 34-16) and the Sea Eagles again (Finals Week One – 42-8). The Cowboys battled to assert themselves as a leading team entering the finals, ranking only mid-table in a range of defensive categories – points conceded (averaging 20 – eighth), tries conceded (averaging 3.3 – equal seventh), metres conceded (averaging 1332.4 – seventh) and line-breaks conceded (averaging 4.2 – ninth). North Queensland were particularly vulnerable in the offloads conceded (averaging 12.6 – 12th) and missed tackles (averaging 36.6 – 14th) categories, highlighting the team’s inability to lock up the ball-carrier and put him to ground, a key requirement in modern-day football.

Missing In Action: The Cowboys suffered a number of key injuries in 2011; they quickly derailed their season and stifled their aspirations of going deep into the finals series. Captain and central playmaker Johnathan Thurston suffered a serious knee injury in the Maroons’ series-clinching victory in Origin III, later diagnosed to be a grade two medial ligament tear with bone bruising. He returned to the field five weeks after suffering the injury, but failed to have the same impact he did earlier in the season. 

Key recruit Brent Tate suffered a serious knee injury playing for Australia at the end of last season and only got on the field for his new club in Round 19. Then two of the club’s youngest stars suffered season-ending injuries – backline star Antonio Winterstein suffered a torn pectoral against Manly in Round 14 and bullocking back-rower Tariq Sims broke his leg against the Sharks in Round 25. 

The club were missing other dependables like Aaron Payne, Willie Tonga and Scott Bolton for periods during the season – had it been a fully fit roster things might have been different for the North Queenslanders.

Turning Point: Precious momentum was lost in the latter part of the season – just when the Cowboys, after a very strong opening 21 weeks of the competition, should have been hitting their straps. Rounds 22 through to Finals Week One were all but disastrous for them, winning just one game in six weeks: a scrappy come-from-behind effort against the struggling Sharks.

In this period the Cowboys’ engine stalled, losing to the Bulldogs, Broncos, Rabbitohs, Warriors and Manly. Much more was expected after such a glittering start. In fact, if the Cowboys had won just one more much in that part of the regular season they would’ve finished as high as fourth on the competition ladder.

Best Games: There were several standout matches that highlight the problems they posed for opposition teams. It’s hard to pass North Queensland’s efforts in Rounds 1 and 3. Against the Broncos, Bowen and ‘JT’ showed they still possessed the attacking skill and guile they are renowned for, leading their team to a shock 16-14 opening-round victory in Brisbane. Two weeks later against the Storm, North Queensland blew the Victorians off the park in a 34-6 demolition. Six Cowboys ran for 100m or more while defensively the Cowboys kept Melbourne’s entire squad to less than 75m – it was a completely dominant performance. 

The Cowboys later in the season also showed they could never be truly kept out of a contest, recording amazing comeback victories against the Raiders in Round 13 and Eels in Round 10. The victory against the Raiders in Canberra was particularly miraculous – North Queensland were 22 points behind midway through the first half before Thurston and rookie forward Tariq Sims led a memorable fightback.

Worst Games: It’s hard to overlook the Cowboys’ last performance, or final 40 minutes of footy – unfortunately in their most important match of their season. In Finals Week One against Manly, the Cowboys looked in good shape leading 8-0 at halftime before capitulating and succumbing to the Sea Eagles’ attacking powers. The Cowboys simply failed to muscle up in the second half, falling off tackles and allowing Manly’s key playmakers and outside backs to run riot. It was an entirely underwhelming performance when Neil Henry’s men had everything to play for. 

The Cowboys also submitted a poor effort against the Tigers in Round 19, albeit without Thurston and Matt Scott. North Queensland, in front of their home fans, were outplayed and outclassed by the Tigers 38-18, a team that had just lost three matches in a row.

Hold Your Head High: Flying fullback Matt Bowen let his feet do the talking in 2011, and they emphatically announced he’s overcome his troublesome knee problems. The dynamic ball-runner and ballplayer returned to his scintillating best this season, regularly running riot through and around opposition defences. In 25 games, ‘Mango’ scored eight tries, ran for an average of 106.7m per match, broke 124 tackles (third most), shredded the defensive line 13 times and set up 17 tries for team-mates. He’s well and truly back, and North Queensland fans know it.

Rookie forward Tariq Sims, signed from the Broncos, had a terrific first season in Townsville. The younger brother of Ashton and a former Toyota Cup Player of the Year announced himself as a star of the future with a match-turning performance against the Raiders in Round 13. Season stats show he’s a handful to deal with in both defence and attack and plays in a similar fashion to South Sydney’s Dave Taylor – in 20 matches Sims scored five tries, tore through the defensive line eight times, broke 66 tackles and effected 21.5 tackles per match. He’s certainly one to watch, as is flashy finisher Kalifa Faifai Loa. In 22 matches, the lightning-fast winger scored 10 tries – most of them spectacular athletic efforts – and set up five four-pointers.

Cowboys coach Neil Henry says: “We came in fairly positive at halftime [leading by eight against Manly]. We had fresh troops [for the second half]... there’s no excuses there. The last 12, 13 minutes when we were two converted tries behind... to open up at the back end there is a disappointing way to finish the season.”

Conclusion: The Cowboys finally returned to finals football in 2011, and had their run of hot form continued late in the season their premiership flame would still be flickering. 

Unfortunately for fans, North Queensland saved their worst for last – but there’s hope on the horizon. With some of the game’s best backs including Bowen, Thurston and Tate, combined with the raw power of forwards like Scott and Tariq Sims, Cowboys fans will be counting down the days until next season.