It should have been so different.
Those are the musings of almost every commentator and expert on the sport when talking or thinking about the North Queensland Cowboys this year. The last time they missed the finals was 2010. They won the Premiership in 2015, played in a Preliminary Final in 2016 and lost the Grand Final in 2017. Further to that, they were runners-up without the services of their co-captains, Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott. In their absence Jason Taumalolo confirmed his status as the most damaging forward on the planet and Michael Morgan joined the echelon of elite players, conducting their late-season run to the big dance. With Thurston and Scott returning, the likely further improvement of Morgan and Taumalolo and the rest of the squad staying mostly intact, 2018 was to be the year of the Cowboy. Surely, they said.
As a Cowboys fan, it was difficult not to get caught up in the hype. Every pre-season prediction had them in the Top 4. Every. Single. One. This author was no different.
Early in the season, when they were slow out of the blocks, I was reminded of the fact that, while the Cowboys made the Grand Final, they did so from 8th position. They shouldn’t have even made the finals, had the Dragons not choked against an under-whelming Bulldogs side. Their marvellous form throughout the finals glossed over the fact they had only won 1 game out of their last 6 heading into the finals. Including their finals run and Grand Final loss that’s 4 wins from their last 10 games. Thurston and Scott were big shoes to fill but cracks were already starting to appear. Instead of addressing the cracks before they appeared, they left it too late and now must sit out during Thurston’s final September. The reason? Organisational Inertia (but more on that later).
Clubs are business minded
Since Rugby League (and so many sports around the world) became professional, business practices have seeped further and further into the structures and philosophies of clubs.
It is no longer possible to succeed on the field without an administration that is run efficiently and professionally. If you want the best chance of finding and nurturing the best young talent, you need a comprehensive junior system with excellent coaching and great scouts. If you want that to translate to success at the top level you need people independently managing your salary cap to ensure that there is an appropriate spread of resources and a head coach capable of identifying the best support staff and delegating their roles, who is tactically brilliant, who is a great manager of people and who has the business sense to promote the sport and the club in the best light when dealing with the media. Above all of that, you need a CEO who understands the game but also understands the business side of things and a board working together towards a common goal; sustainable success on and off the field.
For a 4-year period, the Cowboys were considered among the best clubs in the league, not just for their aforementioned on-field exploits but for their ability to keep the players they wanted to keep and the way their board and front-office worked together to keep the team successful. With an astute Head Coach in Paul Green and surrounded by an array of knowledgeable and experienced Assistant Coaches (including David Furner, John Cartwright, David Fairleigh, Todd Payten, Terry Matterson and Jason Demetriou), the Cowboys were a fixture at the business end of the season. Of the 17 players that featured in their Grand Final victory in 2015, only 3 are no longer contracted with the club (and 2 of those have retired). By contrast, the Broncos team they beat are without 7 players that featured in the same match, as are the Sharks who won the competition a year later.
The Cowboys have been so determined to keep their successful team together that they’ve inadvertently caused their own downfall.
“Organisational Inertia is the tendency of a mature organization to continue on its current trajectory. This inertia can be described as being made up of two elements — resource rigidity and routine rigidity. Resource rigidity stems from an unwillingness to invest, while routine rigidity stems from an inability to change the patterns and logic that underlie those investments. Resource rigidity relates to the motivation to respond, routine rigidity to the structure of that response.” https://managingresearchlibrary.org/glossary/organizational-inertia
The above quote is filled with jargon, but to translate, it is common for an organisation that has been successful to want to continue to do things the same old way. That is Organisational Inertia. This organisation suffers from ‘routine rigidity’, which is the inability to change any methods or philosophies which then leads to ‘resource rigidity’, where they only invest as much as they need to keep the status quo. But in a competitive environment like the NRL, other teams are forever formulating a plan to bring down the successful teams and become successful themselves. They find ways to do what the successful organisations do and then find ways to counter them. It is up to the organisation/team to overcome Organisational Inertia if they wish to remain successful. The Cowboys are a textbook example of Organisational Inertia and it’s bringing them down. There are many ways to prove this.
1. The Cowboys have had the most consistent roster in the competition over the past 4 seasons.
When they couldn’t keep James Tamou, they replaced him with a clone of Tamou (Jordan McLean). The losses of Rory Kostjasyn and Ben Hannant were offset by the purchase of Ben Hampton and the rise of Coen Hess. Their current roster has been designed to maintain the style of play that has been successful in recent seasons and hasn’t allowed the Cowboys to regenerate their playing group or evolve their team in any meaningful way.
2. This causes the Cowboys to be predictable.
During the height of their success the Cowboys had a very simple game plan; roll forward on the back of the best middle 3 in the competition (Scott, Tamou, Taumalolo) and then run block plays in the opposition red zone. Forcing edge defenders to make 15 decisions a game eventually forced overlaps and gave the likes of Antonio Winterstein and Kyle Feldt ample time to get to the tryline. But teams have seen these shapes many times before and they’ve learned to counter them consistently. Defenders know that if Thurston is in the team, he is the indicator. They have learned that the ball often takes a while to get to him (either slow service from Jake Granville or if he’s playing from behind a block play) and they’ve seen that they can pressure him from the inside. Nullifying Thurston = nullifying the Cowboys, and they haven’t had a viable Plan B in 2018.
3. They could not hold on to their best young players because of their desire to keep the status quo.
In the past few seasons the Cowboys have unearthed 4 players of genuine representative quality, but only managed to keep 1, Coen Hess. Felise Kaufusi left the club before he’d even played first grade; same goes for Viliame Kikau. Kalyn Ponga signed for the Newcastle Knights after just 2 games for the Cowboys. As a fan, just typing those last 3 names and thinking of what they could have brought to the 2018 table at the Cowboys physically hurts. My fingers feel like they will fall off.
But seriously, we all know that every team can’t keep them all and it’s true that none of those players were good enough for first grade when they left. It’s worth remembering that the players in front of them at the time (the likes of Gavin Cooper, Ethan Lowe, Lachlan Coote) were all playing great football and didn’t deserve to be dropped. It was easy to be loyal to these players instead of taking a chance on a few kids and bringing them through a little bit at a time. But that’s routine rigidity. Now Kaufusi is an Origin back rower, Kikau has been pivotal for the Panthers during their charge to the top end of the table and Ponga is probably the most exciting player in the NRL. The Cowboys needed someone with that kind of foresight in their organisation and the entire club needed their mindset to change. It didn’t.
4. Paul Green’s infinite patience with under-performing players.
Lachlan Coote. Antonio Winterstein. Justin O’Neill. Jake Granville. Ethan Lowe. Scott Bolton. Though many of these players have performed brilliantly for the Cowboys over the years, for much of 2018 these players have simply not delivered the performances required of someone in their positions. Many fans of the club lost faith in Paul Green’s leadership when he continued to give chances to under-performing players in lieu of giving younger players an opportunity. Paul Green’s faith is a symptom of routine rigidity; he wanted to keep the status quo and stick by players that have got the job done before. But they’re all older and carrying injuries. Perhaps they’re complacent? Maybe other teams have found their weaknesses? It’s probably a combination of all three. The bright performances of inexperienced players like Enari Tuala, Corey Jensen and Mitchell Dunn have only further shown that, perhaps, changes should have come sooner to overcome the inertia.
A way forward
With a host of players off-contract at the end of this season and currently no incoming players for 2019, the Cowboys have a unique opportunity to overhaul their playing roster while keeping the nucleus of a successful team in place. Michael Morgan, Kyle Feldt, Jordan McLean and Jason Taumalolo are all contracted long-term, as is Coach Paul Green, while the retirement of Johnathan Thurston might enable them to sign another marquee player. Other off-contract players include Coote, Winterstein, O’Neill, Lowe. The Cowboys need to shed some of those players that have given great service to the club and hit the market hard, bringing an influx of fresh faces into their organisation with attributes that will suit a change in style for the Cowboys. There are talks that Valentine Holmes will join the club as a Fullback; this is a good start.
They also need a healthy Michael Morgan. Now that his bicep injury will rule him out for 2018 he has a chance to fix the rest of his niggling issues and can return to the field fitter and stronger in 2019. Give him the number 7 jersey and get him running the ball from the advantage line, not forever playing behind block plays.
It’s not unreasonable to think the Cowboys will soon bounce back if they regenerate their roster through brave recruitment and can adjust their attacking and defensive structures. To do so, they must overcome their Organisational Inertia. Here’s hoping they can!
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