North Queensland Cowboys: 2018 NRL season preview

The North Queensland Cowboys are now firmly established as one of the game's burgeoning superpowers.

Five years ago it would not have been possible to write such a sentence but the club is now positioned to be considered a premiership contender into the foreseeable future. The retirement of Johnathan Thurston is clearly on the horizon, but the Cowboys are now far from a one-man band and boast match-winners right across the park.

 What's new

The Cowboys have been the most stable club in the Telstra Premiership during the past four seasons on the player front.

The side that runs out in round one of 2018 could well be the same as the starting lineup in the 2015 grand final, with the exception of new recruit Jordan McLean. McLean is the one big signing the Cowboys made in the off-season to strengthen what is already a formidable front-row rotation.

What's old is new again this year with the return of co-captains Thurston and Matt Scott from injury.

Cowboys prop Matt Scott.
Cowboys prop Matt Scott. ©Dave Acree/NRL Photos

 The draw

The Cowboys can sometimes not perform to their best against some of the lesser sides but that won't be a concern in the opening six rounds where they have as tough a start to a season as you could get.

The home round clash with 2016 premiers the Cronulla Sharks is followed by the Brisbane Broncos (away) and then a 2017 grand final rematch with the Melbourne Storm (away). Then follows the Penrith Panthers (home), New Zealand Warriors (away) and Canterbury-Bankstown Bulldogs (home). A strong showing in those rounds will put the premiership hotshots well on their way.

 The stat that gives fans hope

Coen Hess finished 2017 as the top try scorer in the NRL among forwards. Those 12 tries in the regular season, including three doubles, is a remarkable statistic considering he played a significant part of the year as a middle forward due to injuries rather than out on his preferred edge.

Why this statistic should warm the hearts of Cowboys fans is simply the potential it reflects. The Cowboys do consider Hess' future to be on an edge where his mobility and skill can be best utilised. He is a forward who loves to score tries, and he's good at it. At the age of just 21 the sky is the limit for this strapping North Queenslander who is destined to be a major force in the Maroons side for the next decade.

 Fantasy focus

Jason Taumalolo ($914,000) has the potential to eclipse Cameron Smith as the best scorer in NRL Fantasy, although the return of Matt Scott ($503,000) and the arrival of Jordan McLean ($525,000) means Taumalolo won't be required to match last season's herculean workload. Johnathan Thurston ($647,000) could once again become the leading half in Fantasy after missing much of 2017.

Cowboys back-rower Jason Taumalolo.
Cowboys back-rower Jason Taumalolo. ©Nathan Hopkins/NRL Photos

 The coach

Paul Green has already established himself as one of the leading mentors in the NRL and is just entering his fifth season at the helm of the Cowboys.

Off contract at the end of the year, he is expected to re-sign with the club in the near future. Green has taken the Cowboys to four finals series in succession, two grand finals and a maiden premiership.

It is the 45-year-old's attention to detail and his ability to take players to another level, no matter whether they are superstars or newcomers, which has been a hallmark of his tenure.

A mark of Green's impact on the playing group is the fact that there has been negligible turnover during his time in charge and the club's stars have either signed long term or expressed a desire to do so.

 Contract matters

With over half their squad off contract Cowboys general manager of football Peter Parr will bunker down in plenty of meetings with player managers this season.

Michael Morgan is set to stay in a major coup for the club while Lachlan Coote, Ethan Lowe, Jake Granville, Antonio Winterstein and Kane Linnett are among those yet to be wrapped up beyond 2018.

The 10-year lifetime deal signed by juggernaut Jason Taumalolo last year will no doubt prove to be a magnet to entice players to stay and lure those in the Cowboys sights to make the trip north.

The club's record in keeping the players they want is remarkable but there is a major challenge ahead.

Cowboys five-eighth Michael Morgan.
Cowboys five-eighth Michael Morgan. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

"It is all about managing the process," coach Paul Green told NRL.com.

"Communication is a big key, so it is all about making sure we are talking to everyone. You can't negotiate with everyone at the same time.

"You've got to work your way through the list. That is what we will be doing."

 The burning question

A genuine premiership threat and the favourite in many pundits books, the Cowboys are yet to dominate a full season of regular club games to the extent they are capable. Despite making the past seven finals series it is a remarkable statistic that the Cowboys have never in their history finished in the top two or hosted a preliminary final.

As a club that already does its fair share of travel the big question to be answered this year is: Will the Cowboys once again give themselves a massive challenge come finals time? You get the sense that this team loves to be in the near impossible situation, before then rising to the occasion. But by banking more wins in the regular season the Cowboys will give their fans even more hope that Thurston's final season in the NRL can end in the ultimate triumph.

 Representative bolter

Kyle Feldt has proven himself to be a big game player. In the 2015 grand final he delivered a miracle try on the biggest stage. In last year's preliminary final he came up with another massive play to put the Cowboys into the season decider.

Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt.
Cowboys winger Kyle Feldt. ©Scott Davis/NRL Photos

The Maroons have brought the giant winger through the Emerging Origin Program and now he is ready to take the next step.

"Kyle Feldt has had his best pre-season since I have been coach here so hopefully that translates into a good year," Green said.

"He has turned up in really good condition at the start of pre-season. He has plenty of talent, but hopefully that is a sign of his maturity and hopefully that he is getting what it is all about now."

Green was in a jovial mood when he quipped that Jordan McLean might be in the frame for a NSW call-up after playing a key role in Australia's World Cup winning side.

"He's my Origin bolter," Green grinned.

That's a pretty safe bet no doubt.

 Player to follow on social media

The fans have voted with their feet on this one and 351,000 of them reckon Johnathan Thurston's Instagram account is worth a look.

Thurston isn't the most prolific poster by any means and family shots do get a good run.

It is perhaps no surprise that his good mate Cameron Smith makes more than the odd appearance as well. Michael Morgan also has 51,000 followers on Instagram and doesn't mind the occasional travel happy snap.

 The quote

Te Maire Martin and Corey Jensen were just two of a group of Cowboys players who got game time in 2017 they would not usually have received had injuries not hit the club hard.

The way the squad lifted in the absence of Thurston and Scott will always be part of Cowboys folklore, but Green said the key was how they respond to the return of the co-captains.

Cowboys back-rower Coen Hess.
Cowboys back-rower Coen Hess. ©Dave Acree/NRL Photos

"The biggest challenge for us is to make sure everyone is contributing," Green said.

"A number of guys made improvements in their development last year and we've got to make sure that with JT and Matt Scott coming back into the side that everyone doesn't take a step back and think they don't have to contribute as much.

"Last year was a great chance to give a lot of guys experience that they probably wouldn't normally have got, so now it is about making sure we make the most of that."

 Soward's prediction

NRL.com expert Jamie Soward says: "One of my favourite players in the NRL, Michael Morgan. Does everything in the game, the ultimate competitor. You can see he's been in the JT school of how to compete and play rugby league.

"North Queensland Cowboys finish 1st."

 Roster

Antonio Winterstein, Ben Hampton, Carlin Anderson, Enari Tuala, Gideon Gela-Mosby, Jake Clifford, Javid Bowen, Johnathan Thurston, Justin O'Neill, Kane Linnett, Kyle Feldt, Kyle Laybutt, Lachlan Coote, Michael Morgan, Shaun Hudson, Te Maire Martin, Coen Hess, Corey Jensen, Emry Pere, Ethan Lowe, Francis Molo, Gavin Cooper, Jake Granville, Jason Taumalolo, John Asiata, Jordan McLean, Josh Chudleigh, Matthew Scott, Mitchell Dunn, Sam Hoare, Scott Bolton, Shane Wright, Shaun Fensom.

Note: These club squads are subject to change. Each club is required to submit 29 of their official 30-man playing squad to the NRL by March 1. The final spot in these rosters can remain free up until June 30.