Cowboys Mid-Season Review
Such is the nature of Cowboys games this year, broadcasts are now being introduced with a health warning. North Queenslanders know what we're talking about.
Win, lose or draw, fans have been tried and tested in an 80-minute cardiac arrest each and every week. But ultimately they have been treated to an unprecedented 10-game winning streak with their team now sitting equal top of the Telstra Premiership ladder by the season's mid-point for the first time in club history.
The journey to 10 straight wins hasn't exactly been cathartic for a fanbase used to their team failing to meet expectations. From predicted premiers in the pre-season to being thrown on the NRL's scrap heap in just three weeks, North Queensland needed some divine intervention and it came exactly three and a half rounds into the competition.
Since then the club has ridden a less-than-convincing streak in which they have trailed in the second half in five of their 10 wins.
The run home: The hardest part of the season is over. On paper the next seven weeks should be relatively smooth sailing as six of their games feature teams currently outside of the top eight. Their sternest test comes in Round 17 as an Origin-depleted Cowboys side travels to WIN Stadium for a Saturday night showdown with the Dragons. Six of their remaining 11 games are away against Canberra, St George, Manly, Cronulla, New Zealand and Melbourne. Two matches stand out as possible finals precursors when the Rabbitohs visit Townsville in Round 23 and the Storm host in Round 25.
Game to remember: Whatever coach Paul Green said in the sheds that night against the Melbourne Storm in Round 4, it must surely go down as one of the great half-time addresses the sport has ever seen. Down 16-4 at half-time, The Cowboys became the second team in 74 games to win from at least 12 points down at half-time against Melbourne sides in the Craig Bellamy era. Johnathan Thurston – who else – sealed the deal with a golden point field goal.
The one that got away: The Cowboys let slip a chance at kick-starting their season in Round 2 with a loss to the Knights. Travelling comfortably at 14-0 after half an hour, the Cowboys went into autopilot and gave Newcastle the impetus for a comeback, which they ran with to record a 16-14 win in front of a stunned 1300SMILES Stadium. In hindsight, what hurt at the time has likely made the side more equipped for a run at the top gong come September.
MVP: Johnathan Thurston. The champion halfback is doing no harm in his quest to become one of rugby league's all-time greats, blitzing the competition's playmakers this season with six more try assists and five more line-break assists than Matt Moylan, who ranks second in both categories. Thurston is pulling the strings and his team is following, with the star playmaking having a genuine supporting cast around him this year, led by new fullback Lachlan Coote and new halves partner Michael Morgan. Honourable mention goes to the one-man wrecking crew Jason Taumalolo. The 22-year-old second-rower utterly embarrasses opponents on a weekly basis and averages a shade under five tackle busts per game this year. While Thurston is contracted to the club until 2017, Cowboys fans have cause for great optimism over the next decade with Taumalolo running around.
Stats that matter: There are ominous signs for the rest of the competition when the Cowboys lead the league in all run metres, possession rate and tackle busts. They have run over 2300 more metres than the second-best in the competition (Brisbane), hold an average possession rate of 52.1 per cent and average almost 33 tackle breaks per game.
Fantasy stud: Johnathan Thurston has been the Cowboy kingpin in NRL Fantasy, averaging 58.3. Ethan Lowe has been very handy with average of 51.6, as has Matt Scott with 49.9. Lachlan Coote has been the great cash cow, increasing $225,000 with an average of 46.6 points and is currently in over 38,500 teams.
Injury Report: The Cowboys' biggest injury this season was the loss of emerging centre Tautau Moga to a third season-ending knee injury. He was one of the side's best performers on the flanks until going down in Rep Round, with his defensive positional play vastly improved. He was also building a rib-tickling reputation, but the Cowboys have since had to make do with the Matthew Wright-Justin O'Neill combination. All things considered, the Cowboys are one of the league's healthiest clubs.
What they are saying: The main buzzword around camp Cowboy has been 'confidence'. What was a crisis of confidence in the early rounds has now bordered on complacency as the Cowboys push their luck further and further.
"Everyone still remembers that point we were staring down the barrel of three losses, it could have been six losses; we had some tough teams after those three losses. I hated footy at that point but now I'm loving it. Obviously there are a few things still to fix up in defence," prop James Tamou told NRL.com.
"We need to be a bit more consistent for longer periods," coach Paul Green said after the great escape in Parramatta. "You can't expect to challenge in big games if you are only playing for half a game, or thirty minutes. I know we can do it, we've done it in big games this year."
Predicted finish: Star power and ill-discipline underscore the Cowboys' campaign to date and after 20 years of much the same, their inconsistency comes as a surprise to few. But when locked in North Queensland are capable of blowing any team in the world right off the park. With a relatively light run home, a club-first top two finish should be the expectation. Road demons have been exorcised and as equal premiership favourites, there is no reason why – 10 years after their grand final failure – 2015 cannot be their year.