North Queensland Cowboys 2017 NRL Season Preview
2016 Review - The Cowboys fell two steps short of defending their maiden Premiership in 2016 as they were eliminated by the Sharks in the Preliminary Final. Finishing 4th in the regular season, the Cowboys managed 15 wins compared to 9 losses and had a brilliant 11-1 record at home with just the one defeat against Melbourne. However, they were never really in the Preliminary Final as the Sharks blew them away from the get-go. With 584 points, the Cowboys had the second best ranked attack in the game, averaging nearly 25 points per game. The Cowboys were a really well balanced team as they also had the second best defence in the NRL, conceding just 355 points at an average of around 14 per game.
Jason Taumalolo was a wrecking ball in 2016 securing the most metres of any player in the NRL as he took his game to another level. Veteran half, Johnathan Thurston, had another great season leading the NRL in try assists whilst Michael Morgan cemented himself as one of the game’s premier five eights. The negative was just the Cowboys appeared to run out of gas at the end of the season with that poor Preliminary Final defeat against Cronulla. They also had a 3-match losing streak between Rounds 21 and 23 which stopped them from taking momentum into the playoffs.
2017 Gains - It has been a pretty quiet summer up in the Tropics with only Ben Hampton (Storm) and Shaun Fensom (Raiders) coming on board for the Cowboys. Ben Hampton has shown flashes of his ability at the Storm, however struggled to win a starting role at the Club over the past few years. He is an adaptable player and might provide good cover for the Cowboys during Origin when their halves are unavailable. Shaun Fensom was touted as a Rep player of the future a few years ago, however fell out of favour at the Raiders last year. Fensom is not an explosive back rower but a hard worker who can make a lot of tackles and clean up situations.
2017 Losses - The main loss over the summer for the Cowboys was James Tamou deciding to head back home to Sydney to play for the Panthers. While Tamou struggled at times in 2016, he was a powerhouse up front in their title winning season in 2015 and gave the Cowboys a real presence and dynamism in the engine room. Combined with the retirement of Ben Hannant, the Cowboys might be lacking some depth in the front row heading into season 2017. Other players the Cowboys have lost over the off-season include Brandon Smith (Storm), Jahrome Hughes (Storm), Rory Kostjasyn (Knights), and Tautau Moga (Broncos).
2017 Player To Watch - Kayln Ponga - I think for two reasons Kayln Ponga is the player to watch this season. I think he is the best young player in the NRL and could quickly become a superstar at fullback or even on the wing this season. Ponga has already signed a huge deal with the Newcastle Knights for 2018 and it will be interesting to see whether Paul Green finds room for him this season, as he would have been very disappointed not to hold on to the hottest talent in the game. Ponga appears to have it all as a fullback, including speed, skill and strength, and showcased it in the Auckland Nines in a dynamic running game where he scored serval unbelievable tries.
2017 Draw (Tough) - The Cowboys have a test in the opening two weeks of the season with games against the Raiders and Broncos. However, in a rare plus, they do spend the opening five weeks of the season in Queensland which gives them an opportunity to get off to a fast start. The Cowboys have a tough draw overall this season, drawing just 11 games out of a possible 16 against last year’s bottom 8 sides, which is the equal second last in the competition.
2017 Forecast - 8th (12 wins)
I think the Cowboys might be one of the teams that slide in 2017. I think the loss of Tamou in the front row and the fact that Matt Scott seems to be getting a lot of niggling injuries means they are not going to be the same face up front as they have been the last few years. We saw last season, when the Cowboys did not dominate the ruck, teams were able to get up in Johnathan Thurston’s face and decrease his effectiveness. Whilst I still think Thurston can play at an elite level, he is not getting any younger, and I think some of the Cowboys’ other playmakers like Granville, Morgan and Coote have to take on more responsibility. I think Lachlan Coote had an average 2016 and needs to be better again this year.
I also think in Linnett, and O’Neill they have some outside backs that are not as dangerous as other Clubs , and Kayln Ponga surely has to find a spot somewhere in this backline. Obviously they are going to be hard to beat at home again in 2017, however I reckon this team might struggle on the road. Whilst it would be silly to write off the Cowboys as a Premiership threat in 2017, I do feel they might be more a fringe player.