The Cowboys are set to enter the great unknown of life without Johnathan Thurston as they aim to return to finals football after an uncharacteristic slide down the ladder in 2018.
Coping with the loss of Thurston, who steered the ship for 14 seasons, will be the ultimate test of Paul Green’s team.
The 2019 outlook
The Cowboys went to the market in the off-season with former Test lock Josh McGuire and former Dragons winger Nene Macdonald the two major signings. The club had hoped that Ben Barba would provide spark at the back but his sacking left a hole in the top 30 that has since been filled by former Broncos outside back Jordan Kahu.
A major addition to the Cowboys staff has been high performance chief Michael Dobbin, formerly with the Fremantle Dockers.
Coach Paul Green told NRL.com that "coming from a sport like AFL they do a lot more running than we do so I think his knowledge around that has benefited us".
"Hopefully we can run with more quality, and for longer in games," Green said.
The Cowboys have not hosted a preliminary final in their history and part of the reason has been their tendency to start slowly.
This year they have a golden opportunity to rectify that with four of the first five games at home against the Dragons, Sharks, Raiders and Storm.
Five key matchups of the Cowboys’ 2019 draw
The round two clash against the Broncos at Suncorp Stadium means the Cowboys won’t leave Queensland to play a game until the round six away clash with the Warriors.
"Starts are important for us because generally we have a fair few players involved in the Queensland side and it takes the pressure off in that Origin period," Green said.
Overall the Cowboys have a favourable draw with 13 of their 24 games to be played against sides that missed the top eight in 2018.
Stat to give you hope
The Cowboys were sixth overall in the NRL for post-contact metres with 501m, a figure boosted by the performance of Jason Taumalolo who topped the competition with an average of 75.8 contact metres from 23 games.
Considering Jordan McLean and Matt Scott missed a large slab of the season, and with the addition of McGuire and Macdonald, there is reason to hope that the Cowboys will only improve markedly in this statistical area this year.
What you need to know NRL Fantasy wise
Jason Taumalolo ($821,000) is a Fantasy superstar but Michael Morgan ($450,000) could be a must-have player if he steps up in Johnathan Thurston's absence the way he did in 2017. Whichever of Jake Clifford ($390,000) and Te Maire Martin ($321,000) lines up alongside Morgan will be a cut-price option in the halves.
Last year Green inked a contract extension until the end of 2021 which will result in him surpassing Graham Murray as the club’s longest serving coach. Green took the Cowboys to a maiden title in his second year in charge in 2015 and to a grand final in 2017 before missing the finals for the first time as coach last year.
"It has certainly been a different preparation for me give we have missed the finals. It is not something I am used to," Green said.
This season Green faces a challenge of helping restore the Cowboys to finals football without their talismanic leader Thurston after a 13th placed finish last year.
The loss of Barba upset his initial plans for the make-up of his spine and he will be without the suspended Scott Bolton for the first five rounds.
Despite those hurdles, Green has proven himself to be one of the NRL’s best young coaches and his rapport with the likes of Jason Taumalolo and Morgan will be crucial throughout 2019.
The Cowboys have more than a dozen players off contract at the end of 2019 including club legends Matt Scott and Gavin Cooper. Scott has told NRL.com he is no hurry to decide his future while Cooper has not put an end date on his career either.
"They have been massive contributors to the club so we will show them the respect they deserve," Green said.
"We’ll also let them play some footy and see how they start the season."
Te Maire Martin and Jordan Kahu are other representative stars whose futures will be decided this year.
The Cowboys have a juggling act with their salary cap as they also prepare to allow room for the possible acquisition of Townsville-born flyer Valentine Holmes should his NFL quest not be realised.
How will Michael Morgan handle running the show full-time?
He proved he had the capacity in 2017 in the club’s stellar run to the grand final and he did come up big in the 2015 grand final when all seemed lost.
"Often when clubs lose a big star like JT they talk about trying to replace him but what is important is that we don’t try and replace him because those players are once in a generation," Green said.
"It is all about evolving as a team without him being in your team."
Hooker Jake Granville was viewed as one of Queensland’s leading rakes in 2015 and 2016 but had a mediocre season by his standards last year. With the Maroons not enjoying a great deal of depth in that position there is an opportunity for Granville to put his name in the frame should he start strongly.
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When you scroll through the feed of North Queensland lock Jason Taumalolo you feel a sense of pride. Plenty of football photos in the Cowboys and Kiwi jersey’s but it’s clear that the red and white Tongan jersey is one he holds closest to his heart.
"Defensively we need to be better and more consistent with how we defend and better on the fundamentals. Last year we were low on completion rates and poor on last-play options. We just put our defence under too much pressure because of that so it is certainly an area we are going to focus on." – Cowboys coach Paul Green.
Arrows indicate players who signed after the submission of initial rosters on November 1, 2018.