Cowboys 2014 Season Preview
It took new coach Paul Green little more than three months to achieve something that no other coach in the history of the Cowboys had been able to deliver: A trophy.
Their shut-out of the Warriors in the semi-finals of the Auckland Nines may have shocked the 46,000 fans in attendance and millions watching on TV around the world but make no mistake, there is a harder edge to the Cowboys under Green than fans have ever seen before.
The Broncos discovered last weekend how hard it is to hold out the Warriors when they have a mountain of possession; the Cowboys kept their line intact using just nine players.
While the likes of Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott, Brent Tate and James Tamou were trying to stay warm in northern England in late November, Green was pushing the remnants of his squad in the baking heat of North Queensland to become a more composed, committed and structured football team.
Coupled with their Auckland Nines victory, a 32-8 defeat of the Broncos and 28-12 win over the Titans is almost the perfect preparation for a rookie coach to have presided over and if not for the season-ending knee injury to Lachlan Coote, would have been free of setbacks.
The buzz word around pre-season training has been 'accountability' as Green's meticulous preparation quickly identifies those who are leading the way, and those who are potentially letting the side down.
There is a roster at the Cowboys capable of going deep into this year's Finals Series and in Green, they may have found the man to take them there.
Gains: Lachlan Coote (Panthers), Cameron King (Dragons), Matthew Wright (Sharks).
Losses: Matt Bowen (Wigan), Kalifa Faifai Loa (Titans), Clint Greenshields (Limoux), Ashley Graham (retired), Chris Grevsmuhl (Rabbitohs), Jayden Hodges (Sea Eagles), Dallas Johnson (retired), Felise Kaufusi (Storm).
How They'll Play It
No coach would dare strip away Johnathan Thurston's ability to play what he sees but there will be a noticeable change in how the Cowboys' approach their work in 2014. Although conceding 18 points per game in 2013 is hardly a defensive statistic to be ashamed of, Green has spent much of the pre-season overseeing a new defensive structure that will hold up under pressure. There is some exciting young talent vying for a spot on the flanks in the likes of Kyle Feldt, Curtis Rona and Zac Santo but they're unlikely to see the ball until the necessary platform has been set in the middle. In short, this will be a team that is hard to break down, and even harder to shut out.
Expect HUGE Things From
We could have named Jason Taumalolo under this banner for the past four seasons but finally it appears we are set to see the best of this destructive mountain of muscle on a more regular basis in 2014. Still just 20 years of age, Taumalolo has been a standout in the pre-season fixtures and has done almost all he can to convince Green he deserves to start in the second row in Round 1. With seasoned campaigners such as Gavin Cooper and Glenn Hall and the dynamic Tariq Sims also pushing for spots, it won't be an easy position to nail down but if he does all the right things at training and given he is such a rare talent it will be hard for Green to hold him back. The sacking of good friend Wayne Ulugia in the off-season will also serve as a stark reminder to Taumalolo that wasted opportunities do catch up with you.
He may have played just 60 minutes at fullback in his senior career but Michael Morgan showed enough in the trial game against the Titans to suggest he could make the Cowboys' No.1 jumper his own for a very long time. A surprise selection following the injury to Lachlan Coote a week prior, Morgan was outstanding in both defence and attack and chimed into the backline on both sides of the field like he had been doing it all his life. An extra ball-playing option outside both Thurston and Robert Lui brings a new dimension and his size and speed ensures he will get the Cowboys' sets off to a good start with his kick returns. The loss of Coote appeared disastrous; it may in fact have uncovered something very special.
The Question Marks
A forward pack full of World Cup stars, an exciting new prospect at fullback, a plethora of talented hookers to choose from, a halfback beginning to assert himself at the highest level and the world's best player at five-eighth: What question marks? The only lingering doubt hangs over the rookie coach but Green has found success wherever he has coached in his young career to date and has made the brightest possible start in his first NRL appointment. The Cowboys beat only four of the top eight teams that qualified for the finals during the course of the season (Bulldogs, Sharks, Knights, Rabbitohs) and their record in Sydney remains a concern but the planets would appear to be aligning in just the right fashion for a serious premiership tilt.
Who Needs To Lift?
Ray Thompson doesn't so much need to lift as continue on from the superb foundation that he laid as the solution to the club's problems at hooker in 2013. Call it coincidence if you like but the Cowboys were a much more settled unit when Thompson was handed the hooking duties in Round 13 and although they continued on their winning streak to qualify for the finals, they missed his input after he had his jaw broken in the Round 24 clash with Newcastle. His return to play in the World Cup for Papua New Guinea will have done his confidence no end of good and both Paul Green and Johnathan Thurston have endorsed him as the side's No.1 No.9. With Cameron King and Anthony Mitchell in the wings there is some hot competition for the spot but if Thompson can make it his own the Cowboys will be a very settled football team.
How's Their Depth?
The long-term injury to Lachlan Coote has put a significant hole in the depth of the fullbacks but Green still has options in Michael Morgan, Zac Santo, Curtis Rona, Javid Bowen and late addition Matthew Wright. The back-row stocks are very healthy, there are a host of happy hookers and Ashton Sims and Scott Bolton are good back-up to Test props Matt Scott and James Tamou. Behind Brent Tate and Kane Linnett there's somewhat of a lack of experienced NRL centres in the squad but there are a handful of youngsters just waiting to show what they've got.
NRL Fantasy Bankers
If you're looking for a couple of cheap-ish buys in the outside backs then Kyle Feldt ($207,900) and Curtis Rona ($107,000). Feldt showed by scoring three tries in three NRL games last season that he has a knack – and often a spectacular one – for finding the line while Rona is also in the mix after two tries in the final of the Auckland Nines. Michael Morgan ($207,600) looks set to have a greater influence than we might have otherwise expected and Jason Taumalolo ($222,500) is in line to play more minutes than at any stage of his career to date. And if you want a guy who competes for the entire 80 minutes, makes line breaks, sets up tries, scores them himself and kicks goals, Johnathan Thurston is going for great value at $386,200.
If you have questions about a rookie coach, consider this as Paul Green's resume: Two Intrust Super Cup titles with Wynnum Manly, a member of the 2013 premiership-winning Sydney Roosters coaching staff and victory at the Auckland Nines in his first foray as Cowboys head coach. The 1995 Rothmans Medal winner as the game's best player, Green has a winning ethos coursing through his veins and has won the respect of the playing group over the course of one off-season. He understands the pressures of being an NRL coach will be unlike anything he has experienced thus far but bringing David Furner in alongside Terry Matterson as his assistants is a shrewd addition. Under Green, this will be an extremely well-prepared Cowboys outfit every week.
With a handful of players still eligible from the team that finished two wins outside the top eight in 2013, the Cowboys should be in a position to push for finals footy this year. Samsen O'Neill is the younger brother of Storm star Justin O'Neill and at 193cm and 92kg is an imposing figure in the outside backs. Corey Jensen sneaks into the squad and the former Queensland under-16 and under-18 representative will feature prominently in the back row as will South African-born Halvor Harris, who will be playing his third year in the NYC competition for the Cowboys.
Twelve months after starting the season as one of the premiership elects, this might be the year that the Cowboys are ready to step up in class. Nine seasons after their one and only grand final appearance, the North Queensland roster is as strong as any in the competition with a forward pack that should rarely be beaten up the middle. If I was a Cowboys fan, I'd keep an eye out for cheap flights from Townsville to Sydney for that first weekend in October.
1. Michael Morgan, 2. Kyle Feldt, 3. Brent Tate, 4. Kane Linnett, 5. Antonio Winterstein, 6. Johnathan Thurston, 7. Robert Lui, 8. Matt Scott, 9. Ray Thompson, 10. James Tamou, 11. Gavin Cooper, 12. Tariq Sims, 13. Glenn Hall. Interchange: 14. Cameron King, 15. Jason Taumalolo, 16. Ashton Sims, 17. Scott Bolton.