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Cowboys star Michael Morgan.

In the second instalment of our series on players aiming for a bounce-back year in 2021, Troy Whittaker runs the rule over Cowboys skipper Michael Morgan's quest to rediscover the old magic.

 

With the pressure that Michael Morgan has carried since Johnathan Thurston's retirement, it's no wonder the Cowboys halfback had shoulder problems last year.

Not since his incredible efforts in the 2017 finals series - when Thurston was injured - has Morgan consistently been at his best. Injuries were a crucial factor in the 29-year-old's form dip.

He managed just 11 games in 2018 (that campaign was ended by a biceps tear), played 20 matches the following season in which he took over the captaincy from Thurston, before a shoulder injury that got infected after surgery kept him sidelined for most of 2020.

When he's been on the field, the Queensland and Australian rep has provided moments of undoubted class while juggling the responsibility of steering the team and taking the line on himself.

New Cowboys coach Todd Payten told NRL.com in December that he believes Morgan is naturally a "running five-eighth - but Michael is also our best organising halfback within the club".

"Some guys are going to have to lift their game if they want to be an organising halfback within the team and take the pressure off Morgo," Payten added at the time.

"It obviously depends on who's fit and available for us as well, how we structure the team, but first and foremost we need [Morgan] on the park and getting his shoulder right."

Morgan is training well and should be fully fit for the start of the season. A stable halves partner - Scott Drinkwater, Jake Clifford and Daejarn Asi are options - and Payten's mission to turn the previously predictable Cowboys into a "fast-moving" team that thrives on ab-lib play could well unlock Morgan's vintage self.

While there's been calls for Morgan to run the ball more - and the man himself signalled his intention to do so before the 2020 season - he's taken on the line quite regularly for the past few years.

In 2015, when North Queensland won the title and Morgan locked down a halves spot, he averaged 8.17 runs from 30 receipts per game over 23 matches. He effectively took a run every 3.6 touches and the following season it was every 3.7 receipts.

Arguably Morgan's best individual season was 2017, winning the Dally M Halfback of the Year award as he drove the Cowboys to a shock grand final appearance with Thurston injured. Perhaps it's no coincidence that Morgan was getting his hands on the Steeden more than ever.

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Other factors like playing behind a momentum-building forward pack and having a good share of possession as is customary when in winning form would no doubt have helped Morgan as well.

But a clean bill of health and a fresh game-plan may be all Morgan needs to recapture his best. It's also probably no fluke that 2017 was the most recent season that Morgan wasn't battling some sort of injury. Even in 2019, the tail-end of his campaign was marred by concussion.

Having now had time to adjust to being the top dog in Townsville, a fit Morgan - with the likes of fullback Valentine Holmes supporting him - is capable of taking North Queensland back to the finals.