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There were high hopes for North Queensland in 2021 with first-year coach Todd Payten confident a new and improved Cowboys outfit would surge back into the finals frame.

Payten's return to Townsville as a head coach brought plenty of optimism following Paul Green's departure but produced a mixed season with off-field movement also taking place.

A horror 0-4 was compounded by Michael Morgan's forced retirement in April due to a shoulder injury and further injuries to Valentine Holmes and Jason Taumalolo throughout the year ensured they could never gain momentum.

The departures of Josh McGuire to the Dragons and Jake Clifford to Newcastle also left Payten thin on depth.

There were some positives to take out of the season, however, with the club landing former Bronco Tom Dearden ahead of a possible combination with Chad Townsend in 2022.

Top 10 tries for 2021: Cowboys

Regular season win/loss record

The best of North Queensland's season came between rounds five and 12 when Payten's men put their early dramas behind them to win six from eight heading into a round 13 bye.

A comeback win against the Raiders in round seven and one-point thrillers over the Brisbane and Warriors respectively were among the highlights of the year.

With the Cowboys sitting in seventh after 12 rounds, Jake Clifford's mid-season switch to Newcastle seemed to upset the apple cart and a 10-game losing streak followed.

An entertaining second half against the Dragons in round 24 brought relief and showed a glimpse into the future in an otherwise disappointing finish to the season.

Run metres differential

Once a juggernaut forward pack to fear, North Queensland's numbers have slid in recent years, particularly under the revamped six-again rules around the ruck.

A negative metres differential of -138 ranked 12th in the Telstra Premiership with their metres gained coming in 10th best. 

Jason Taumalolo's game time generated plenty of discussion with the usual metre-eater having his minutes reduced again in 2021 by an average of three per game.

The Tongan powerhouse still produced 2331 metres and finished in the top four alongside Valentine Holmes (3477 metres), Kyle Feldt (2652 metres) and Jordan McLean (2593 metres). 

Try scoring - game time

North Queensland scored 82 tries in 2021 with a fairly even spread across the 80 minutes.

They crossed first in nine of 24 games, winning 55.6 per cent of games when scoring the opening try.

Payten's men struggled to score tries before half-time with 17 to rank 14th but improved in the second halves of games with a combined 44 in the final half.

The Cowboys ranked eighth for tries scored in the opening 20 minutes of games.

Winger Kyle Feldt led the way with 12 tries, including his 100th career try against the Storm in round 19.

Centre Murray Taulagi (10) and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow (8) also troubled the scoreboard throughout the year.

Tries conceded - game time

While the Cowboys had the ability to score tries early, they were rated the worst in the competition for tries conceded in the first half of games with 73. 

They improved slightly after half-time but fell away again late in games, conceding 34 tries in the final 20 minutes.

Tries scored/conceded from six-agains

It was tough going for the Cowboys to generate any momentum around the ruck with their tries scored from six-again calls recording just 12 to sit alongside the Titans and Sea Eagles.

They conceded 19 for the season from six-agains to rank 14th.

Metres gained from offloads

The Cowboys recorded the fewest offloads in 2021 with just 163 in 24 games to average 6.8 per outing.

Their 50.8 metres gained was also the lowest in the competition in an area that should be reviewed in the off-season.

No Cowboys player finished in the NRL's top 50 for offloads with Jason Taumalolo the side's best with 17, followed by Scott Drinkwater (15), Coen Hess (11) and Valentine Holmes (11).

Goal-kicking accuracy

The Cowboys ranked 12th in goal-kicking in 2021 with 65 successful conversions.

Valentine Holmes was the primary goal-kicker to slot at 73 per cent while Scott Drinkwater kicked 11 goals when Holmes was out injured.

Players used

North Queensland's tally of 35 players used was the third most behind the injury-hit Warriors and Broncos (36).

Their squad age average of 25 was the second youngest in the competition behind premiers Penrith with six debutants blooded throughout the season.

To highlight the side's inexperience, a competition-high 14 of Payten's players were under the age of 23.

Among the rookies included Heilum Luki and Jeremiah Nanai, who took their opportunities in first grade and look like bright prospects for the future.

Scott Drinkwater, Jordan McLean and Reece Robson were the only Cowboys to play in every game.

Intercepts

North Queensland were the intercept kings of 2021 with a competition-high 13 for the year.

The Cowboys finished three clear of South Sydney and Manly with centre Connelly Lemuelu topping the charts for the side with three.

Fellow outside backs Ben Hampton and Murray Taulagi finished with two apiece.

Defensive woes

North Queensland struggled throughout the year to defend their line to rank 15th behind Parramatta for most break causes for poor reads.

The Cowboys' edges were targetted most in this area with Kyle Feldt recording the most with 27.

The side's missed tackle count of 882 also ranked 15th in an area that will need addressing in 2022, particularly through the middle of the field.

Playmaker Scott Drinkwater finished the season with a total of 92, well ahead of middle men Reece Robson and Coen Hess (both 68).