Cowboys 2016 season review
It's tough to say whether North Queensland's 2016 season was a success or a failure.
They never got too high or too low throughout 26 rounds, merely waiting for their shot at the bigger things to come at the business end of the year.
Holding a 7-3 record over the first 10 weeks, they were in cruise control from the start. But minor premiers Melbourne, Canberra and Cronulla were consistently good throughout the year, and with such a large Cowboys Origin contingent it meant that, like the Broncos, their fight to gain home-ground advantage for a qualifying final was an uphill battle.
Gavin Cooper's call-up for Queensland meant six Cowboys featured in the State of Origin series – a club record – and the lack of talent back at NRL level really took its toll. The Cowboys are a hugely deep team, but not deep enough to not be impacted by the absence of almost three quarters of their salary cap.
The Origin-related problems manifested both during the series and, like last year, in a 'hangover' period post-Origin.
Their game immediately following Origin III (a 36-0 win over the Dogs) was their most dominant of the year, but it was backed up with their longest losing streak (three) of the season.
Losses to Melbourne, Wests Tigers and the Roosters had pundits fearing the worst, but in reality a troubled period late in the season is exactly what they faced last year.
They bounced back with big wins over the Warriors and Titans to actually enter the finals series as one of the form teams, but ran into a jolting brick wall at Melbourne's AAMI Park in the qualifying final in a night that changed their season through injury.
On the surface the losses of Ethan Lowe, Kane Linnett and Antonio Winterstein were not an issue – they were glossed over in the spectacular, game-of-the-season semi-final victory over the Broncos – but the Cowboys did suffer in go-forward.
That 90-minute sensory overload against Brisbane may have been too much for the Cowboys mentally more than physically, as they committed a swag of simple unforced errors against Cronulla in the preliminary final the following week.
Where they excelled: Point-scoring. The Raiders were on a whole other level in attack this year, but 104 points behind them in second (584 points at 24.3 per game) was North Queensland. They had the grunt up front from Jason Taumalolo (more metres of any NRL player in 2016), and got solid, consistent yardage from their outside backs and bench. Johnathan Thurston pulled the strings and halves partner Michael Morgan had less peaks and valleys in a more settled year at five-eighth. The Cowboys were very good at generating overlaps and one-on-one situations where their outside backs could flourish.
Where they struggled: Away from home. They had been 9-3 on the road last season, but that number dipped severely to 4-8 in 2016. Players and coaches – publicly at least – did not see their road form as an issue, but it is certainly what cost them a more comfortable run throughout the finals, which is probably what they needed with all of the niggling injuries they were carrying. Considering their sheer dominance at 1300SMILES Stadium this year, had they nabbed a top-two finish the Cowboys would have been heavy favourites to win their qualifying final and subsequent preliminary final, which would also have been played in Townsville.
Missing in action: Until their qualifying final loss to Melbourne, they hadn't genuinely been affected by injury since centre Tautau Moga did his ACL in last year's Pacific Test match. Their season came unravelled in the Melbourne loss with workhorse Ethan Lowe, stalwart centre Kane Linnett and veteran winger Antonio Winterstein all suffering what would turn out to be season-ending injuries. Lowe's replacement Coen Hess showed enough to suggest that he will feature in the weekly 17, while left-side replacements Javid Bowen and Kalyn Ponga lacked the grunt that would have really helped keep their forwards fresh.
Turning point: The Cowboys had an ultra-consistent regular season, but their biggest turning point was when Thurston went down with a hamstring injury midway through their Round 20 win over the Bulldogs. It started a chain reaction of small-time injuries that would eventually pile up and cruel their season. It is probably no coincidence that JT's injury immediately preceded their late-season form slump.
Hold your head high: They showed some genuine ticker, which is no surprise with the coach and captains they have, but it is a winning mentality that will hold them in good stead for years to come – even post-Thurston. They fought the back-to-back premiership curse, but ultimately the rugby league gods got the better of them.
2017 crystal ball: With young gun Coen Hess likely having booked a weekly place in the 17-man team going forward and the progression of key guys like Morgan, Taumalolo and Lowe, they should once more vie for the Telstra Premiership's grand prize. The big question mark is their go-forward. It has been elite for years and it will be interesting to see how they cover for the loss of James Tamou.
Conclusion: There was no real 'pop' about their campaign on the whole, which is probably the way a defending premier wants it. Teams aimed up at them weekly, trying to prove themselves against the best, and all told it probably impacted their physical health by the end of the season. It was a rather meek ending to a consistently high-level year, but one thing is for sure: the Cowboys will be back hungrier and still more than capable of threatening for another title.
Position: Fourth (Lost in Preliminary Final)
Home Record: 11-1
Away Record: 4-8
Longest Winning Streak: 5 (Round 5-9)
Longest Losing Streak: 3 (Round 21-23)
Players Used: 25
Tries Scored: 98
Tries Conceded: 58