Will Evans’ series of 2018 NRL club previews appeared in the February/March issue of Rugby League Review magazine.
The story of the North Queensland Cowboys’ 2017 campaign promised to be a horrific injury toll that included, among others, season-ending injuries to co-captains Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston.
But the patched-up, Michael Morgan- and Jason Taumalolo-inspired Cowboys added an extraordinary post-script, surging from eighth spot to the grand final, where they went down to Melbourne. Scott Bolton and Te Maire Martin also stepped up to play integral starting roles in the club’s rally.
The return of Thurston – possibly in his last season – and Scott, along with the acquisition of new Kangaroos Test prop Jordan McLean, sees the northerners go into 2018 as one of the NRL premiership favourites.
One of the Cowboys’ main strengths is their stability. Incredibly, this year they are still likely to field 14 members of their 2015 grand final-winning squad – McLean, recent Queensland Origin debutant Coen Hess, and utility options Ben Hampton and Martin are only likely diversions in Paul Green’s first-choice 17.
In the absence of the Cowboys’ experienced leaders, ‘young veterans’ Morgan and Taumalolo cemented themselves as top-10 players in the NRL during an extraordinary late-season charge. The duo’s World Cup performances only enhanced that status.
The Thurston farewell tour is destined to overshadow the Cowboys’ season, but without the burden of Origin, JT is well-equipped to shoulder that load and deflect attention away from a squad that – with a better run of luck than they were dealt last year – should be there again on grand final day in 2018.
BEST RECRUIT: After helping the Storm halt the Cowboys’ fairytale run in the 2017 decider, Jordan McLean switches camps. The Young Cherrypickers junior has long been regarded as a top front-row prospect, but last year he became elite. McLean rivalled clubmate Jesse Bromwich in importance to the Storm’s title triumph and played all six matches of Australia’s World Cup campaign. A NSW Origin debut awaits in 2018.
STRENGTH: The game’s greatest-ever player steering the ship and three others that are in the conversation for being the world’s best in their position is a good start. A coach with a magnificent track record that has already guided a near-identical line-up – arguably less-talented than it is now – to a premiership completes the picture.
WEAKNESS: If Scott and/or Thurston’s body breaks down again, the Cowboys come back to the pack. Meanwhile, the representative period is almost certain to bite hard once again.
KEY MAN: Thurston is obviously vitally important to the North Queensland’s chances. Ditto Morgan. But the most irreplaceable player in the line-up is Jason Taumalolo, who backed up a joint Dally M Medal success in 2016 with arguably an even better campaign last year. Averaging over 200 metres a game across the season, the hulking No.13 was unbelievable during the finals and equally influential for Tonga at the World Cup. The world’s best forward.
PLAYER TO WATCH: In a star-studded pack, Ethan Lowe’s contribution tends to get overlooked. The Goondiwindi product has missed just two games in the past three seasons, is tireless on both sides of the ball, has underrated ball-skills and kicks goals at around 80 percent. The 26-year-old wouldn’t look out of place in a Maroons jumper.
YOUNG GUN: Coen Hess forged a permanent first-grade spot in 2017, missing just one game and leading the NRL’s forwards with 13 tries – despite starting 18 games on the bench. He also broke into the Queensland side, but should be aiming to translate his interchange impact to his run-on performances, which have lacked the same explosiveness.
UNDER PRESSURE: The three-quarter line of Antonio Winterstein, Justin O’Neill, Kane Linnett and Kyle Feldt has won a grand final together and are collectively an extremely reliable unit, but the Cowboys could do with a bit more strike out wide. Winterstein, LInnett and O’Neill mustered just 10 tries between them from a combined 67 appearances in 2018. The likes of back-ups Javid Bowen and Gideon Gela-Mosby would command first-grade spots at most clubs, while Carlin Anderson is also in the Cowboys’ backline mix.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: Jake Granville was a vital cog in the Cowboys’ premiership triumph, and while his form hasn’t been poor since, the hooker has been unable to provide quite the same impact. In 2015 Granville averaged 64 metres, scored 10 tries and made 11 line-breaks; last year he averaged just 29 metres and chalked up four tries and four line-breaks. Young rake Josh Chudleigh will turn up the heat on Granville this year.
THE COACH: Paul Green is rightly regarded among the very top bracket of current coaches, with his efforts in guiding his depleted team to the grand final arguably his greatest accomplishment yet. It’s hard to envision things unravelling enough in Townsville for Green’s job security to come into question any time in the foreseeable future.
LAST FIVE COACHES:
Paul Green (2014-current)
Neil Henry (2009-current)
Ian Millward (2008)
Graham Murray (2002-08)
Murray Hurst (2001-02)
TAB PREMIERSHIP ODDS: $5.50
GAINS: Jordan McLean (Melbourne Storm), Francis Molo (Brisbane Broncos)
LOSSES: Patrick Kaufusi (Melbourne Storm), Patrick Mago (Brisbane Broncos), Kalyn Ponga (Newcastle Knights), Ray Thompson (retired), Braden Uele (Cronulla Sharks)
BEST LINE-UP IN 2018
1 Lachlan Coote
2 Antonio Winterstein
3 Justin O’Neill
4 Kane Linnett
5 Kyle Feldt
6 Michael Morgan
7 Johnathan Thurston
8 Matt Scott
9 Jake Granville
10 Jordan McLean
11 Gavin Cooper
12 Ethan Lowe
13 Jason Taumalolo
14 Ben Hampton
15 Coen Hess
16 Scott Bolton
17 John Asiata