NRL Rd 3 - Cowboys v Titans
TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 28: Mitch Dunn and Murray Taulagi of the Cowboys look dejected after losing the round three NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Gold Coast Titans at QCB Stadium on March 28, 2021, in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

The North Queensland Cowboys suffered a shocking second half of the 2021 season. Here is the season review.

Pre-Season predicted finish: 10th
Actual finish: 15th
Record: Seven wins (-288)

2021 Season Snapshot:

My opinion of the Cowboys changed three times this season. After a month I wrote them off. As the Cowboys entered the Round 13 week off I had them top-eight favourites. Then, post Origin, they were awful.

They started terribly - winless after four rounds - and ended the season with only one win post their Origin bye.

Ultimately too many of the Cowboys' stars underperformed and Todd Payton simply lacked the answers.

Losing Michael Morgan to retirement early in the season proved to be a fatal blow.

How's this for a stat? Only four players were named in the same position in Round 1 and Round 25. For the record only Kyle Feldt (wing), Jordan McLean (prop), Reece Robson (hooker) and Jason Taumalolo (lock) survived.

Star player: Scott Drinkwater

At one point in the season, Scott Drinkwater was one of the form players of the competition. I still have no idea why the Cowboys signed a new halves pairing after his re-signing.

Drinkwater played in all 24 of the Cowboys games in 2021. He contributed 17 try assists and crossed for five tries himself. Three line breaks and 44 tackle breaks round out an impressive attacking statline.

SCOTT DRINKWATER
Fullback
Cowboys
2021 SEASON AVG
0.2
Tries
0.7
Try Assists
1.8
Tackle Breaks

The 24-year-old played multiple positions this season and had just as many halves partners. Tom Deardon, Ben Hampton and Jake Clifford all lined up beside the specialist five-eighth.

Considering everything he was put through, combined with the lack of strike power around him, Drinkwater had a brilliant season in comparison.

Breakout star: Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow

The Hammer had an absolute wow of a season that saw him take over the Cowboys fullback role as well as make his Queensland Origin debut.

His 2020 performances made it clear he would be a star but the speedster took it to the next level in 2021 and is now a genuine rep quality back.

Eight tries and 13 line breaks in 13 games show is attacking flair. My guess is he'll score many, many more next season.

Whether or not he stays in the fullback role long-term is up for question. Truthfully, he's equally as dangerous anywhere in the backline regardless of the number on his back.

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Positives

- Coen Hess rebounds: The former Origin wrecking ball suffered the most severe case of "second year syndrome" on record. In 2020, he was a shell of his former self.

A chance of position, and seemingly attitude, brought about a complete turn of fortunes which saw Hess named as the Cowboys player of the year.

A move to prop simplified his game and Hess benefited greatly. He spent the season rotating in and out of the starting line up, which seemed to work.

His stat-line doesn't deliver anything massive but the fact he seemed to return to the Hess of old is a huge step forward for both player and club.

TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 09: Coen Hess of the Cowboys celebrates after scoring a try during the round 22 NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Brisbane Broncos at 1300SMILES Stadium on August 9, 2018 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

- Fresh faces: One of the big knocks on the Cowboys was their aging roster. They have moved on the likes of Josh McGuire, replacing him with much younger talent.

In the final round of the season the Cowboys fielded a name that included the names Murray Taulagi, Ben Condon, Jeremiah Nanai, Deajarn Asi, Helium Luki, Mitchell Dunn and Griffin Neame.

Reece Robson screams representative quality. The aforementioned Hammer is ridiculously quick and elusive.

Their 2021 may have been rough but a squad refresh was required and it's a small step toward positives in the future.

Negatives

- Limped to the finish line: The Cowboys started poorly, with just one win in their opening five games, but the way they ended their season was awful in every sense of the word.

One win after the Origin Bye, which included 12 games, just isn't good enough. At the halfway point I genuinely thought they would be pushing for eighth.

Instead they were reduced to the second worst team in the competition.

It was a fun win over the Dragons in Round 24. It would have to be to feed the otherwise win starved Cowboys fans.

- Two stars without positions: Valentine Holmes and Jason Taumalolo are on a combined $2 million-plus. A superstar fullback and the game's elite 13.

Todd Payton had no idea how to use either throughout the entire season. Holmes spent the season shifting between the custodian role, the wing and even playing in the centres.

Meanwhile Taumalolo's minutes were almost guesswork week-to-week. One week he would play 70, the next he would play 45. His work rate was way down.

Both entered the season as the Cowboys major players yet neither were allowed to produce the season they probably should.

WOLLONGONG, AUSTRALIA - JUNE 28: Jason Taumalolo of the Cowboys looks dejected after a Dragons try during the round 15 NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the North Queensland Cowboys at WIN Stadium on June 28, 2019 in Wollongong, Australia. (Photo by Mark Kolbe/Getty Images)

Season Grade: D

This season was a dismal failure for the Cowboys. The only reason they didn't land on an F grade is because there were some positives.

That said, there's not one Cowboys fan who would have take a 15th placed finish in return for a crop of youngsters emerging.

This season will set them up for bigger and better things in the future but it will not be one fans, or players, will look back upon fondly.

Some future stars emerged in the Hammer and Reece Robson. They're both cornerstones of everything that will be good in Townsville for years to come.

Otherwise, this squad massively underachieved.