North Queensland Cowboys season preview
The Cowboys fell two wins short of doubling their premiership tally last year, but new signings and a consistent backline will have them eyeing the premiership again in 2017.
They'll be relying on numerous young players to make a groove for themselves at NRL level, having lost a host of their top 17, including James Tamou, Ben Hannant and Rory Kostjasyn. These losses are offset by the signing of promising Storm utility Ben Hampton as well as the return of players such as Sam Hoare from injury. Coach Paul Green will need to ensure every player knows their role in the team, and that they can execute it well.
Gains and losses
Gains: Ben Hampton (Melbourne Storm), Corey Jensen (Townsville Blackhawks), Shane Wright (Gold Coast Titans).
Losses: Jahrome Hughes (Melbourne Storm), Brandon Smith (Melbourne Storm), Ben Hannant (retired), Rory Kostjasyn (Newcastle Knights), Tautau Moga (Brisbane Broncos), James Tamou (Penrith Panthers).
What we know
With marquee players like Matt Scott, Johnathan Thurston, Michael Morgan and 2016 Dally-M medal winner Jason Taumalolo all fit, the Cowboys will be a cut above most teams, and should secure themselves a top four finish. The loss of Tamou and Hannant could shake up the effectiveness of their forwards rotation which has been so devastating in the last few years. If anyone can have the new recruits firing it will be Green, and he will be eager to make sure everyone from 1 to 17 knows their role in the team.
 Telstra Premiership: Johnathan Thurston
Try Assists, Line Break Assists, Goals.
Kalyn Ponga. He's heading to the Knights in 2018, but with Antonio Winterstein likely to miss Round 1 and 2, he could very well start the 2017 season on the wing. The six week period over Origin could also see him play five-eighth or wing if Morgan and O'Neill play for Queensland. The young talent should alleviate some of the attacking difficulties the Cowboys struggle with over that period due their playmakers being in camp, but only time will tell. The teenager made his debut in Round 2 of the finals last year and was named in the team of the tournament at the Auckland Nines. Despite this he was unable to edge out the likes of Feldt, O'Neill, Coote or Winterstein for a starting spot in the last trial match against the Tigers.
The Cowboys have several young players who are likely to play their first full season of NRL, particularly in the forwards. Coen Hess and Sam Hoare will most likely come off the bench and should give the Cowboys extra metres though the middle as well as strengthening defence. Green will want them to step up during the Origin period in the absence of Matt Scott and they should be up to the challenge.
North Queensland have promising talent sitting on the sidelines in both the forwards and backs. Whatever combination of Scott Bolton, Patrick Kaufusi or Sam Hoare Green goes with, they'll be playing for their spot every week. The same will go for the backline, with Gideon Gela Mosby and Kalyn Ponga having proved that they're more than able to step up to NRL level. Despite this, they'll still be stretched over the Origin period, with Thurston, Morgan, O'Neill, Scott and possibly more joining the Queensland team depending on their form.
Lachlan Coote's price has been reduced to $280,000 after a string of low scoring games towards the end of 2016, and may pick up in price depending on his form. A more reliable buy could be Ethan Lowe or Gavin Cooper, who both average in the mid-to-high 40s and cost $468,000 and $418,000 respectively. Johnathan Thurston's scoring average has been lower over the last 5 rounds, leaving his price at $468,000 for a scoring average of 48.3. The superstar is a fair bet to improve at the start of the season so if you have money to spare pick him up before his price rises. The ultimate fantasy banker in the Cowboys squad, and perhaps the ultimate gamble for 2017, is Kalyn Ponga. He is unlikely to play a full season this year, but most experts will be tipping him to have a huge year in 2018, so he's an almost certain cash cow. As for 2017, put him anywhere from 18-25, and bide your time until Origin (or possibly Round 1), when he's likely to make it into the Cowboys side and rack up some big points.
A top-four finish for the third year in a row is as probable as anything can be in the NRL for the Cowboys given the amount of talent in the team. A good mix of young legs and experienced heads will make them tough to beat, even when they're short staffed during the Origin period. Jonathan Thurston will finish close to the top, or win, the Dally M medal and Coen Hess is poised for a breakout season.