North Queensland Cowboys Season Preview
The best player in the game is fit and refreshed, coach Paul Green has his feet comfortably under the desk and there is depth and intense competition for spots across every position; the Cowboys' premiership window is as wide open as it has ever been in its 20-year history. The bitter taste of three heartbreaking finals exits has been replaced by a resolve to keep their fate in their own hands and ensure when this season is finished there are no lingering what-ifs.
Gains and losses
Gains: Jake Granville (Broncos), Ben Hannant (Broncos), Justin O'Neill (Storm), Kelepi Tanginoa (Eels).
Losses: Anthony Mitchell (Blackhawks), Curtis Rona (Bulldogs), Ashton Sims (Warrington), Tariq Sims (Knights), Brent Tate (retired), Ricky Thorby (Blackhawks).
As mainstays of the Cowboys forward pack the loss of Sims brothers Ashton and Tariq has the potential to be the ones felt the most but Paul Green has done a terrific job in adding seasoned Origin campaigner Ben Hannant to the front row stocks and the dynamic Kelepi Tanginoa to the back-row rotation. The addition of Justin O'Neill also intensifies competition for spots in what was a settled three-quarter line in 2014.
What we know
The Cowboys have one of the most complete rosters in the game, headlined by arguably the game's best player, Johnathan Thurston, who enters the 2015 season with an uninterrupted pre-season for the first time in many years. The shift back to halfback midway through last year sparked the Cowboys on their way to a fifth-place finish and he will start this season with the No.7 on his back again. His co-captain Matthew Scott also missed the season-ending Four Nations tournament to undergo shoulder surgery and after the disrupted start to his career as Cowboys coach last year Paul Green has had a full pre-season with virtually his entire squad on deck from day one. The sense around Townsville is that Green is the man to deliver the hard edge the Cowboys need to go from under-achievers to genuine premiership threats and - if they get through Origin unscathed - will be one of the teams to fear in September.
They may not be unknowns to coach Paul Green but just how he uses his playmakers has remained a closely guarded secret throughout the pre-season. Michael Morgan was a revelation at fullback last season but Lachlan Coote's return from an ACL injury has made Morgan's hold on the position a tenuous one, and Robert Lui's place in the halves even more uncertain. Coote and Morgan shared the custodial duties in the club's final trial against the Titans but we won't know until the first teams are announced which way Green is going to go. The hooker position is the other contentious one with incumbent Rory Kostjasyn facing a battle from Jake Granville, Ray Thompson and Cameron King for the No.9 jersey. They are integral pieces of the premiership puzzle and ones Green will be eager to get settled sooner rather than later.
There are a raft of seasoned professionals ahead of him but front-rower Patrick Kaufusi may be handed an NRL debut during the middle of the year when Origin commitments eat into the Cowboys' roster. The younger brother of Antonio and Felise Kaufusi, Patrick has spent the past three years in the under-20s system and was signed to a three-year deal at the end of the 2013 season, an indicator of the club's belief in his future. 18-year-old Coen Hess was given a taste of the big time at the Auckland Nines and will be one to watch in the Holden Cup competition throughout the season.
Room for improvement
It took until Round 19 for the Cowboys to notch a win on the road last season and how they manage their travel plans in 2015 will determine whether it's a top four or a top eight finish. Along with the Warriors, the Cowboys have the most arduous travel schedule of any team in the NRL but Green won't allow that as an excuse any longer. Their 2-5 start to the season last year put the Cowboys on the back foot early but with three games at 1300SMILES Stadium in the first month they have an excellent opportunity to hit the ground running.
It would take an injury toll of horrific proportions for the Cowboys to be caught short on quality in any position this year. There are a host of players capable of playing in the key roles of fullback, half, five-eighth and hooker, while the forward stocks have an excellent blend of experienced professionals and powerful youngsters capable of producing the spectacular. The addition of the Townsville Blackhawks to the Intrust Super Cup competition also ensures there are match-conditioned ready-made replacements should the Cowboys be caught short at any stage.
Test stars Johnathan Thurston ($484,000), Matt Scott ($471,000) and Jason Taumalolo ($371,000) are the Cowboys' standout Fantasy players, although there is value on offer elsewhere in the squad. Lachlan Coote ($137,000) has been a popular Fantasy buy at this price but needs to start in the backline to be worth picking up, while Jake Granville ($189,000) will be a steal if he gets the starting hooker role.
Such has been Paul Green's influence in the first year of his two-year contract that the club is already moving towards extending his stay in Townsville beyond the 2015 season. A strict disciplinarian, Green showed in the second half of last season he is capable of turning a team of potential into ruthless premiership threats, notching wins against the Rabbitohs (twice), Bulldogs and Sea Eagles before bowing out by a point to the Roosters in the Semi-Final. The Cowboys know they are on to a good thing and have every intention of keeping Green exactly where he is.
You only had to witness the speed and power on display in their trial against the Titans in Cairns to know that the Cowboys have no intention of easing into the 2015 season. Their opening game against the Roosters is arguably the most exciting match-up of Round 1 and the combinations between Thurston, Michael Morgan and Lachlan Coote seem assured and well-drilled, whichever formation they end up playing in. This is a team that has wonderful balance across the park and big bodies in just about every position, making momentum next to impossible to stop once they get rolling. It's the club's 20th anniversary and 10 years since their lone Grand Final appearance but Cowboys fans may be well advised to save the big celebration until early October because this is a team that can go all the way. NRL.com prediction: 3rd