Cowboys' 2014 Season Review

Why? Of all 16 clubs in the NRL, why did North Queensland's season have to end this way?

At 30-0 down after 34 minutes of their Semi-Final against the Roosters there was no way known the match officials were going to influence the manner of the Cowboys' departure from season 2014. But a miraculous comeback – almost the greatest the game has seen in its history – saw the Cowboys denied a match-winner with 65 seconds left on the clock and left with a heartbreak that will haunt them all the way through until February.

For the third consecutive season, contention surrounded the Cowboys' finals exit with the opinion of Robert Lui's knock-on in the lead-up to what appeared to be Johnathan Thurston's final and most telling play of the game dependent on which side of the border you inhabit. The only real winners – except for the Roosters, of course – were the conspiracy theorists who are now amassing an impressive portfolio of reference material.

Thurston and coach Paul Green were magnanimous in defeat, pointing to the 30 points they gave up at almost a point a minute as the reason that their season ended two weeks prior to the Grand Final. But in the hours that followed there had to have been some quiet moments where they pondered whether the rugby league gods are ever going to look after them when it matters most.

It was just the third time all season the Cowboys had conceded more than 30 points in a game and like many teams before them discovered that there is no better team at piling on a flood of points than the Roosters once they get rolling.
The Cowboys had advanced to the Telstra Premiership Finals Series on the back of seven wins from their last eight games and only missed out on a top four finish when the Panthers knocked over the Warriors in Round 26.

That set up a dream all-Queensland Elimination Final in Week One and although they may have allowed the Broncos a sniff midway through the second half, the manner in which the Cowboys won suggested they had premiership aspirations to match their abundant talent.

They were dealt a major blow early that week when Tariq Sims' career at the Cowboys finished with a five-week suspension for a shoulder charge, Green incurring a $10,000 fine for suggesting he had little faith in the consistency of the judiciary.

It was an unfortunate way for the final week of Green's rookie season to begin having given his players a genuine shot at the title despite a pre-season heavily disrupted by representative commitments.

Although the playing roster remains largely intact heading into next season, we will wait and see whether 2014 will end up being the one that got away.

Where They Excelled: Although new coach Paul Green invested heavily in the team's defensive structures throughout the pre-season, the Cowboys were the most creative side in the competition in 2014. Much of that can be contributed to the genius of Johnathan Thurston and his NRL-high 30 try assists during the regular season (the next best was 22) but there was much more to the North Queensland attack than simply letting 'JT' do it all.
Besides his Cowboys teammate, only Brett Stewart, Cooper Cronk and James Maloney had more try assists than Michael Morgan who transferred his skills learned from years playing in the halves seamlessly to his new position of fullback. Robert Lui's influence also grew as the season progressed as the Cowboys finished with 88 try assists for the year, the most in the NRL. And their defence? Only the Roosters and Rabbitohs conceded fewer points.

Where They Struggled: Statistically speaking there is barely a weak spot to be found amongst the Cowboys of 2014 but if there is one area that could use some attention is their ability to fight back from a half-time deficit. On nine occasions this year the Cowboys went into the break trailing on the scoreboard and only once were they able to come back and win the game. At 30-12 down against the Roosters the odds were heavily stacked against them again but they almost achieved the impossible. Perhaps Green will have to spend the off-season brushing up on his half-time pep talks.

Missing In Action: Notwithstanding the loss of Lachlan Coote at the Auckland Nines and the career-ending knee injury to Brent Tate suffered in Origin II, the Cowboys had relatively minor disruptions to their squad in 2014.
Gavin Cooper missed the middle part of the season with a hip injury, Matt Scott was sidelined for five games with a fractured cheekbone also in the wake of Origin II while Tariq Sims had his Cowboys career come to an inopportune end when he was suspended for five games for a shoulder charge on Justin Hodges in Week One of the Finals Series.

Turning Point: On the back of their most disappointing loss of the season against the Knights in Round 15, the Cowboys went into Round 16 against the high-flying Rabbitohs in 11th spot on the ladder and in need of a mid-Origin spark. Despite having only five days to prepare, Green reassembled his troops for an early onslaught and they delivered three rapid-fire tries in the opening 10 minutes. They led 20-6 at half-time and despite not scoring a point in the second half and surviving some nervous moments in the dying stages, they always appeared to have the game in hand. They went down narrowly to the Dragons the following week but then embarked on a five-game winning streak to solidify their place in the top eight.

Best Games: No Cowboys team has done a bigger job on an opposition than the 2014 squad did to the Wests Tigers in Round 22 but despite the 64-6 scoreline there were more impressive performances against far more committed opponents during the year. A five-try opening half against the Roosters set up a commanding 42-10 win in Round 10, their 20-12 victory over the Bulldogs in Round 20 was their first at ANZ Stadium since 2006 but it was the dismantling of the Rabbitohs in Round 24 that gave North Queensland that premiership-worthy appearance. With his team completing a perfect 19-from-19 sets in the opening half, Johnathan Thurston completely dictated proceedings as the forwards more than matched their more fancied opponents. The score was 22-0 inside the final half hour of play and finished 22-10, coach Green particularly pleased with how his side absorbed pressure against a team that had averaged more than 36 points per game over their four previous games.

Worst Games: The heaviest defeat of the season surprisingly came at the hands of the Raiders in Round 11 while Thurston, Scott, Tamou and Tate were on Origin duties, a somewhat shaky start to the season was highlighted by a 20-16 loss to Warriors in Round 3 but it was in Round 15 against the Knights on a Monday night in Newcastle where the Cowboys hit their low point.
With all of Paul Green's instructions recorded for an upcoming episode of 'Sterlo', the rookie coach remained relatively calm despite what was transpiring on the field. With less than 20 minutes to play the lowly Knights led 28-6 and only two tries in the final two minutes saw the Cowboys bridge the final scoreline to 36-28. Their 34 missed tackles were well up on their season average of 24.5 per game but they passed their test of character by recording a strong win the next week.

Hold Your Head High: It's difficult to achieve a high level of performance week upon week in the NRL; try living up to the standards of being the best rugby league player on the planet year after year. Johnathan Thurston was awarded the Golden Boot as rugby league's best player in the wake of Australia's World Cup triumph last year and he picked up where he left off, laying on five line-break assists and two try assists in the Cowboys' Round 1 win over Canberra. His 30 try assists during the regular season were eight more than any other player in the NRL, his 26 line break assists a league high and only hookers touched the ball more in 2014 than 'JT'. With 10 tries, 82 goals and four field goals, he was also the competition's leading points-scorer. Champion.

Conclusion: In his first season as head coach Paul Green has laid down a wonderful foundation on which to build into the future but in order to progress they will have to get over that nagging feeling that 2014 presented a wonderful opportunity they were ultimately unable to take. With Thurston and Scott playing some of the best footy of their illustrious careers, Jason Taumalolo delivering on his extraordinary promise and the surprise discovery of a top-shelf fullback in Michael Morgan, all the right ingredients were in the mix for the Cowboys to give the premiership an almighty shake. The Cowboys' premiership window may not get any wider than what it will be in 2015.

SEASON STATISTICS

Wins: 14
Losses: 10
Position (after 26 rounds): 5th
Position (after Finals): 6th
Home Record: 12 wins, 1 loss (equal 1st)
Away Record: 3 wins, 9 losses (equal 14th)
Longest Winning Streak: 4 (Rounds 19-22)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Rounds 2-4)
Players Used: 29
Tries Scored (after 26 rounds): 105 (2nd)
Tries Conceded (after 26 rounds): 73 (equal 3rd)