Cowboys 2017 season review
The North Queensland Cowboys were unable to make it two premierships from the past three years after reaching the NRL Telstra Grand Final and going down to the clinical Melbourne Storm.
Finishing runner-up to the Storm was an impressive feat, given the Melbourne were the standout side all year, losing just four games. After finishing eighth on the ladder and having to rely on the Bulldogs beating the Dragons in the final round of the regular season, the Cowboys had no right to go anywhere near the premiership decider.
That they were there on grand final night, perhaps more than anything else, defines the Cowboys' 2017 season. A season that shouldn't have been. When Matt Scott suffered a season-ending ACL injury in Round 2 the Cowboys' forwards should have struggled for the remainder of the year, but Jason Taumalolo led a host of second-stringers through the season brilliantly.
Similarly when Johnathan Thurston's season was ended, the Cowboys should have faded out of contention, but Michael Morgan took the reigns as if he was born to do it, combining with former Penrith Panthers' five-eighth Te Maire Martin and a backline riddled with injuries through the back-end of the season.
While Morgan and Taumalolo were undoubtedly the leaders of the side, every player stood up to fill the void left by Scott and Thurston. Coach Paul Green deserves a special mention for the belief and culture he cultivated in 2017.
Where they excelled: For a team that only had five players play every game in 2017, the Cowboys did unbelievably well. They showed more toughness and resilience than any other side in the competition through the regular season, which allowed them to scrape into the finals. That was where they really excelled in 2017, claiming the scalps of 2016 premiers the Cronulla Sharks, as well as top four sides the Parramatta Eels and Sydney Roosters. Morgan in particular came into his own to dominate all three games. It was Taumalolo who got them to the finals on his massive shoulders, with the Cowboys running a competition-high 45,754 metres in 2017, over 5,000 of which came from Taumalolo, the most by an individual in any season.
Where they struggled: In attack up until Round 26 the Cowboys were ineffectual, largely due to execution. They had no trouble rolling up the field, but when it came to the last kick or pass they were just slightly out of tune. This showed in the regular season, ranked eighth for tries scored and finishing with a for-and-against of just +24. The Cowboys struggled early in games, scoring just 16 tries before the 20th minute in 2017, while conceding 23 in that time frame. It was a telling sign of their turn around in the finals that they limited the Sharks, Eels and Roosters in those early periods, before running over the top of them at the back end of games.
Missing in action: The Cowboys will be hopeful that Shaun Fensom's leg break in the grand final will be the last of a horror season for injuries, with the World Cup still to come. Matt Scott was lost in Round 2, while Jonathan Thurston's season was ended after State of Origin Game II, but the two captains were just the tip of the iceberg. Gavin Cooper, Jake Granville, Lachlan Coote, Justin O'Neill, Antonio Winterstein, Patrick Kaufusi and Ben Spina all played 25 or fewer games for the Cowboys due to injury (and in Cooper's case State of Origin). The Cowboys used 32 players over the course of 2017, and sustained five season-ending injuries from the trial matches to Round 26.
Turning point: The Cowboys were about to crack open or, in some cases, were already halfway through their first off-season beers before the Canterbury Bulldogs dug deep to beat the St George Illawarra Dragons in Round 26 to allow North Queensland to finish eighth. From there the Cowboys had nothing to lose, and it showed as they defeated the Sharks in extra time in an elimination final, before dismantling premiership hopefuls the Eels in the semi-final and the Roosters in the preliminary final – all played in Sydney. It was through the first three weeks of finals that Morgan's spot in the Australian five-eighth position was all but secured, as he capped off three master-classes in game management to carry the Cowboys to the grand final. Only the clinical Storm, led by the best game managers in the business in Cameron Smith and Cooper Cronk, could halt Morgan, but the 25-year-old will take his lesson and be better for it.
Hold your head high: Michael Morgan. There is life after Johnathan Thurston at the Cowboys. The man who has always been happy to play a support role was given a trial by fire and came out red hot. His step up to lead the Cowboys in the number seven jersey has likely secured a five-eighth position in the World Cup, and showed that Morgan can and perhaps will be one of the dominant halves of the competition for years to come. He was classy and professional all year, and it takes those traits in spades to step up and fill the shoes of one of the best ever in Johnathan Thurston.
2018 crystal ball: The smart money would be on the Cowboys to go one better in 2018. Having made two grand finals and a preliminary final in the last three years it's clear Paul Green has developed a culture around performance and turning up for your teammates. With the return of Thurston and Scott, as well as Jordan McClean joining the Cowboys' ranks, the form of Morgan and Taumalolo as well as the fact that Thurston won't be playing Origin, it's hard to see the Cowboys being anything but dominant in 2018, provided they have a luckier season in the injury department than they did in 2017.
Conclusion: The only people who thought the Cowboys could go all the way to the grand final in 2017 after losing Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott were the Cowboys themselves. The Cowboys defied all expectations as Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo stood up to show why they are the future of North Queensland. The Cowboys only got better with adversity, going all the way to the decider from eighth place when the experts said they were only there to fill in the numbers.
While success is never guaranteed, if the likes of Morgan and Taumalolo continue to be dominant in 2018, with Thurston and Scott back in the side, as well as a host of players with grand final experience, the Cowboys will undoubtedly be title contenders again next year.
Position: Runners-up (Finished eighth on ladder)
Home Record: 6-6
Away Record: 10-5
Longest Winning Streak: Four games (Rd 16-20)
Longest Losing Streak: Four games (Rd 21-24)
Players Used: 32
Tries Scored: 89
Tries Conceded: 91