The North Queensland Cowboys ran away with the World Club Challenge in the second half against Leeds.

There has always been something about the Cowboys. Superstar halfback and potential immortal Johnathan Thurston spearheaded a talent-laden side each year, yet they could never reach the heights expected of them. That changed last year when Thurston and coach Paul Green went all in and finally reached the NRL’s summit. They then went on to beat the world. When the chips were down, in one of those moments that will itself be immortalised in sporting folklore, Thurston received the help he had craved for so many years. Thanks to solid leadership and a long-overdue supporting cast, the tide has officially turned up north, and this club is on the path to success and will certainly be in the mix this year. After winning the World Club Challenge, you can bet the Cowboys are pumped up for the season.

Gains and losses

Gains: Shaun Hudson (Gold Coast Titans), Jahrome Hughes (Townsville Blackhawks)

Losses: Viliame Kikau (Penrith Panthers), Cameron King (Parramatta Eels), Glenn Hall (retirement), Robert Lui (Salford Red Devils), Kelepi Tanginoa (Parramatta Eels), Scott Schulte (Parramatta Eels)

With the squad’s immense talent and high-level culture, the Cowboys are well served sticking with the tried and tested. Unfortunately, the drawback to such a situation is that only 17 players can be on the park at one time. Thus, the likes of young talents Kikau, King, Lui, Tanginoa and Schulte (who cannot crack the 17) are looking for more opportunity elsewhere; namely Parramatta.

What we know

It’s better to be lucky than good, and boy were the Cowboys all kinds of both last season. Their fitness level was unquestioned, but the number of times they pipped teams at the post cannot be relied upon again. Crisp passes on time and on target, expertise on the fringe of the ruck, dominance in the play-the-ball (on both sides), solid defence and a precise kicking game – all of the skill particulars that underlined their premiership campaign will be on display again in 2016. While his body may not be willing, we would like to see a little more of Johnathan Thurston taking the line on – something he did in the World Club Challenge game against Leeds.

The unknowns

The joys of a premiership side that stays in tact means that there are few unknowns; but a couple we can pinpoint are the health of star front-rowers Matt Scott and James Tamou and the first few weeks of the season. James Tamou’s neck problems have been well documented, and a year after the hulking prop went under the knife Matt Scott had exactly the same procedure. Tamou is less of a concern after proving his health last year but despite a successful surgery and looking good in the World Club Challenge, Scott is yet to test himself under the rigours of week-to-week competition. While the Cowboys can now call themselves world champions, their fragmented lead-up to Round 1 may cost the traditionally slow starters early in the season.

Rookie watch

There is a realistic chance that the Cowboys won’t play a single rookie this year, but electric youngster Gideon Gela-Mosby is the most likely. Along with wowing audiences in the Auckland Nines the 19-year old proved a try-scoring sensation in the 2015 Holden Cup, scoring a record 39 tries (17 more than anyone else last year), and will likely start the season back at his old stomping ground. However, coach Paul Green may experiment and throw the slightly-built teenager to the wolves in one of their three Intrust Super Cup feeder teams. Green likes keeping a successful team together, so the 17 players that won both the premiership and World Club Challenge will be locked in for at least the first few weeks of the season.

Depth

With so few changes to last year’s team, the story is much the same for the Cowboys. Possibly the most interesting battle for spots will be on the right edge, where Tautau Moga (when he returns) will challenge Justin O’Neill and Kyle Feldt for a jersey. Matthew Wright is also in the running.

Fantasy bankers

He’s not the Dally M medallist for no reason. Johnathan Thurston was the highest-scoring half in NRL Fantasy last season, and if you want him you’re going to pay a hefty fee. Thurston will start 2016 priced at $528,000, but if you are willing to splash the cash then this seasoned veteran is a bona fide blue chip investment. The ever-reliable Matt Scott ($417,000) is also money in the bank, but hooker Jake Granville is a super-hot commodity right now. The little man has challenged himself to becoming an 80-minute player as a result of the new interchange rules, and it will pay dividends in Fantasy.

Pick your NRL Fantasy team

Coach watch

Seven men came before him, but last year Paul Green became the first Cowboys coach to truly quash the road woes that had perennially plagued one of the league’s most travelled teams. In just his second year as an NRL head coach, he also buried their lackadaisical outlook in the past through an unwavering commitment to excellence. The relationship he built with superstar co-captains Johnathan Thurston has also helped sell the coach’s good word, and when both coach and captains are on the same page the rest falls in to place quite nicely. Green was last year rewarded with a three-year contract extension, and it is not a stretch to say that he will keep the seat warm for longer than that.

Crystal ball

The early rounds could cost them, but the impact of an interrupted pre-season is offset somewhat by the familiarity within the group. The most interesting thing this season will be the Cowboys’ hunger level; no team has won back-to-back premierships in a unified competition since Brisbane did it in in 1992-93. North Queensland faces some stern challenges in the first four weeks (Cronulla at home, Sydney Roosters at home and Brisbane away), but we think their best football will come at the pointy end of the season. They'll be in the top four.