North Queensland Cowboys: 2018 season preview

RealSport take a close look at the 2017 Grand Finalist’s chances this season.

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Picture Credit: CityLibraries Townsville

Overview

2017 was a year where everyone, including hardened Cowboys fans, wrote them off after State of Origin 2, when Johnathan Thurston succumbed to a shoulder injury that would require season-ending surgery.

They’ll learn from this year, they said. Despite the injury toll, the Cowboys scraped into the Top 8.

The future is bright, they said. The Cowboys went on to make the Grand Final anyway.

With the return of Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston, the addition of international front-rower Jordan McLean, the rapid improvement of Michael Morgan and losing no one from their first choice 17 man squad, expectations are high that 2018 is a year that the Cowboys win just one more premiership during the ‘Thurston years’.

The new faces

When Jordan McLean signed for the Cowboys in March of 2017, it was seen as an astute signing of an up-and-coming front rower.  By the end of the season, he was a premiership winner and Australian representative with 6 caps to his name.  What was initially a good signing became a great one, with McLean forming a formidable middle with Matt Scott and Jason Taumalolo, who are both arguably the best players in their positions in the world.

On the back of dominant performances from an All-Star forward pack, we can expect McLean to feature in his first State of Origin series in 2018.

Otherwise, the Cowboys have been quiet in the marketplace, with signings Carlin Anderson and Francis Molo strengthening the depth of the Cowboys’ backline and forward pack respectively.

Signings: Carlin Anderson (Townsville Blackhawks), Jordan McLean (Melbourne Storm), Francis Molo (Brisbane Broncos).

The departed

Kalyn Ponga had been earmarked for a long future as a Cowboys, so his signing with the Newcastle Knights was met with much disappointment up North.  As fans of the game, we can only hope that him moving to a lesser club will not hinder his development, because he has the makings of something truly special.  

Patrick Kaufusi moves to the Storm, which subtracts from the Cowboys’ forward depth, while Ray Thompson’s retirement after an injury-riddled career means the Cowboys say goodbye to an honest toiler and likeable club man.

Losses: Patrick Kaufusi (Melbourne Storm), Patrick Mago (Brisbane Broncos), Kalyn Ponga (Newcastle Knights), Ray Thompson (retired), Braden Uele (Cronulla Sharks).

Predicted line-up

1 Lachlan Coote 10 Jordan McLean
2 Kyle Feldt 11 Gavin Cooper
3 Justin O’Neill 12 Ethan Lowe
4 Kane Linnett 13 Jason Taumalolo
5 Antonio Winterstein
6 Michael Morgan 14 Te Maire Martin
7 Johnathan Thurston 15 Coen Hess
8 Matt Scott 16 Scott Bolton
9 Jake Granville 17 John Asiata

Key players

Michael Morgan

It always seemed that Morgan was destined for greatness; his size, strength and speed have long been a thorn in the side of his opponents.  In 2017, inspired by the injury of the world’s greatest player, Morgan added ‘game management’ and ‘strong kicking game’ to his toolbox, making him one of the game’s elite playmakers.  With Thurston returning, it is imperative that Morgan doesn’t fade back into a supporting role; instead, he must rise and take the Cowboys confidently towards a future where they can no longer rely on the superhuman talents of Johnathan Thurston.  2018 will be the year that we discover exactly what Morgan is made of.

Ethan Lowe

In a star-studded forward pack, it is an unsung hero that could hold the key to success for the Cowboys in 2018.  Known for his consistency and industrious nature, Lowe will be a key target for Michael Morgan on that right edge with his outside-in lines, while his 80-minute performances rotating between his edge and patrolling the middle showcase his valuable versatility.  He makes a wonderful back-up goalkicker if Thurston is injured, as well!

Lachlan Coote

Coote was an important signing for the Cowboys years ago, but went down with injury in his first season and Michael Morgan had a great season at fullback.  Once fit, Coote was rushed back into the fullback position by Paul Green, to plenty of raised eyebrows, but after a premiership, it’s hard to knock his judgement. Coote is a reliable custodian at the back, but it is in attack that his value is truly measured.  As a talented left-footed kicker, Coote provides a genuine alternative to Thurston and Morgan on the 4th and 5th tackle, often catching the defending fullback out of position down the Cowboys attacking left with a well-weighted kick from inside the attacking 40m, or deft ball-playing skills.

Key fixtures

Round 1 will serve as one of the most significant club games in North Queensland’s history, with Johnathan Thurston making his 300th appearance against the Cronulla Sharks (if fit).  With the Broncos in Round 2 and the Storm in Round 3, the Cowboys will play against every grand finalist of the last 3 years, so early doors we will see if the Cowboys have what it takes to push for another premiership tilt.

In other news, the Cowboys will host the Broncos in Round 22; a continuation of a rivalry that has become so intense it is almost absurd, with the quality of the matches almost always of an impeccable standard.  

2018 prediction

Luck plays a major part in any premiership campaign and the Cowboys ran out of luck in 2017.  It is important that the players dust themselves off and focus their minds on getting into the Top 4 in 2018, where a team of their talent belongs. With astute signings and a good retention rate, the Cowboys are poised to get back on the horse and challenge for the title in what may well be Thurston’s swansong season.

There are, of course, rumours that this will not be his last year. Regardless, emotions will be high in the North as the career of their favourite (adopted) son nears its end. With the energy of a region behind them, you can’t help but feel excited about the chances of the Cowboys in 2018. Top 4 is a minimum expectation with their roster, but a Premiership is certainly in reach.

How do you think the Cowboys will fare in 2018? Let us know in the comments and poll below. 

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