The Cowboys' decision to move big-money recruit Val Holmes from fullback to wing has raised some eyebrows but coach Paul Green insists it's the right move for his team.
Rookie speedster Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow will line up in the No.1 jersey on Thursday night in Townsville with Holmes on the flank for the showdown with premiers Sydney Roosters.
NRL.com Stats has crunched the numbers on what this could mean for the club's floundering attack and defence, and also found that despite not hitting the heights of his stellar year at fullback for the Sharks in 2018, Holmes is still an elite fullback at Telstra Premiership level.
Green said there were several aspects to the move. With Holmes battling an ankle injury in recent times, the chance to reduce his running load for a week was taken into account.
Tabuai-Fidow also gets another chance in his preferred fullback role; blessed with impressive pace and skill but slight of stature, the 18-year-old lacks the size and strength common in modern wingers.
Perhaps most importantly, the club's edges have been getting ripped apart in recent weeks, most notably in the 42-4 loss to front-runners Parramatta last week and the chance to add some experience on the fringes was also a big factor in Green's decision.
Holmes as a fullback vs Holmes as a winger
Holmes debuted on the Cronulla wing in late 2014 before blitzing the 2015 pre-season NRL Nines in Auckland to establish himself as a star for years to come.
Aside from four games at the back that year, Holmes never played fullback until switching there early in 2017, then swapping back and forth between the roles in 2018 prior to his departure to the NFL.
Taking purely the recent form of Holmes into account, he certainly seems to have evolved to the point he can have a far greater impact on matches with the No.1 jersey on his back.
A quick look across his entire career from 2014 to now as a fullback and a winger (ignoring representative games) shows a close to even split across the two positions – 61 on the wing and 50 at fullback.
His try-scoring rate is unsurprisingly better on the flank but his ball-playing has been near non-existent on the wing.
Adding in his try assists, he has a greater rate of try involvements at fullback (0.86 per game tallying tries and assists, against 0.77 per game on the wing).
He also makes more than 30 metres better yardage per game from the back, busts more tackles, offloads more and supports more than twice as much.
A large portion of that is purely from playing a different role and the historical numbers go all the way back to 2014 – there is no question he is a much more developed player now than he was then.
Perhaps a better comparison would be 2018 and 2020.
In 2018 – his final year at the Sharks and final year in the NRL before the US sojourn and recent return – he was shuffled between fullback and wing.
There were six total positional switches, resulting in 18 games at fullback and eight on the wing – with a vastly greater presence at fullback.
His run metres almost doubled; his line breaks (0.5 per game on the wing) more than doubled to over one per game at fullback.
Again, his try-scoring rate was slightly better on the wing but counting assists, his total try involvements were better from fullback with 13 tries and eight assists in the 18 games. He busted around two tackles per game on the wing and four per game at fullback.
Hammer for Holmes necessary
Form for the Cowboys
Given the team has been struggling, with the non-Taumalolo forwards failing to lay an effective platform and the edges proving flimsy at best, and Holmes himself is trying to get back into it after a year doing completely different training for a completely different sport, he has started impressively.
Discounting the Warriors game in round five (in which he was injured very early, attempted to tough it out on the wing for a bit before succumbing) he has five try assists in five games and averages 130 metres, almost three busts per game and just over three kicks defused per game.
There is the disclaimer that three of those assists came against the battling Titans but no matter how you chop it, it's tough to argue Holmes is not a high-quality fullback at NRL level.
Injury recovery and what's best for the team
Of course, no statistical analysis can quantify whether or not Holmes would benefit from a week or two on the wing as he recovers from an ankle injury.
Nor can it quantify how quickly Tabuai-Fidow will get comfortable at NRL level.
There would also be plenty of speculation involved as to how much having a veteran Test and Origin winger playing on the flank will remedy the club's brittle edge defence, which has mostly generated further infield from the back-rower, half and centre on either edge.
What is clear is that the audition on Thursday night against the red-hot Roosters will be a blowtorch examination of the highest order and plenty of players other than Holmes will need to lift if North Queensland are to topple the back-to-back premiers.