The men from Townsville came into 2024 looking for a dramatic turnaround after being one of last season's big disappointments.

Alongside the Parramatta Eels and South Sydney Rabbitohs, the Cowboys dropped out of the finals having played in September the year before. So good were the Cowboys in 2022, they went all the way to a preliminary final.

But questions were immediately asked over whether that was all simply a flash in the pan for the Cowboys as they crumbled to miss the finals in 2023, despite still holding a winning record at home.

We all know the Cowboys are so often defined by their efforts up North. Hot, humid and in front of a parochial crowd, Townsville is one of the competition's toughest places to play on the road, joining the likes of Melbourne, Auckland and, in recent seasons at least, Penrith at the top of the pile.

But as it's tough for others to play in Townsville, it's tough for the Cowboys to play away from their hometown - in differing conditions and on the back of a long flight - with their closest away venue being the two-plus hour trip to Brisbane.

Compare that to other sides, particularly in the Sydney basin where a bus trip in a matter of minutes can be an away game, and it's understandable why Todd Payten's side have struggled playing away from home at times.

In a season where they won 12 games, the Cowboys managed 8 of those wins at home last campaign.

While it's imperative that they at the very least match that effort throughout 2024, the Cowboys have clearly changed their attitude on the road, leading to hopefully more competition points away from Townsville, as the keys to their success heading into the new year.

And that is hardly a surprise - in the aforementioned 2022 season where they made the finals, the Cowboys won 8 of their 12 games away from home. That, for the Cowboys, is a mighty impressive effort and saw them wind up in third spot.

Their attitude that year was set by their defence, which finished as the second best in the competition, and there are similarities between the opening weeks of the new campaign, and that 2022 campaign. Similarities that were missing too often throughout last year's dismal run to missing the top eight.

That's not to say the Cowboys have been perfect during the opening weeks, but a 3-0 record is difficult to argue with, in what has been a topsy-turvy beginning to the new season where a number of surprise results have been recorded.

After putting their best foot forward in attacking during the opening round of the season in a 43-18 thrashing of the Dolphins, the Cowboys were narrow victors at home in a scrappy Round 2 encounter against the Newcastle Knights.

The performance against the Dolphins was better, but the fight and desire to hang in a difficult contest against Adam O'Brien's side in Round 2 was missing from North Queensland for much of last season.

They then travelled to Sydney, and despite finding themselves on the back foot after a dreadful period during the first half, the Cowboys found top gear to turn an 18-4 deficit into a 46-24 victory over the Red V.

Netstrata Jubilee
   Crowd: 9,252

The Dragons had plenty of problems throughout the game, but most of them were caused by the Cowboys, who scored seven of the last eight tries and played an excellent brand of rugby league at both ends of the park.

The way they fell behind during the opening 20 minutes would have - more often than not - seen the result become a write-off last year. The Cowboys would have rolled over, conceded more points, and found themselves on the receiving end of a heavy loss. That was particularly evident in their defence on the right edge, which was among the worst in the competition with poor structures, poor movement and bad tackling efficiencies for virtually every player who lined up out there.

But the attitude reversal in a desperate-to-turn-things-around Cowboys side this year is evident, with North Queensland refusing to roll over for the Dragons and let things get ugly. 

A lot of that attitude can be seen in Reece Robson, who heaped the pain on his old club during Round 3, with another high-level performance - which we are now becoming accustomed to - from the dummy half. Likely to be in the mix for an Origin jumper this year if he and the Cowboys continue their form, Robson is one of the competition's quiet achievers, and, yet, almost indisputably among the Cowboys' most important players at both ends of the park.

Tackles Made
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As he tends to do most weeks, Robson was rock solid in the middle third for the Cowboys, leading the club for tackles and missing few, but it's his attack which often sets him apart from other dummy halves.

His running game for a number nine is superb, and he proved it again against the Red V, making 75 metres from 7 carries and coming up with three try assists in the process. That is on the high end of what he has achieved, but his effort and energy throughout the 80 minutes each week means he is almost always in a position to be able to put up solid numbers for his team.

And, because he holds his own on defence, he is the sort of player his teammates can rely on to lead them through each contest. You only need to watch the way he communicates, provides quality ball service, and helps to organise the defence to know Robson is the sort of player his teammates want to be on the same side of the park as.

The dummy half role is so critical in the modern game, when it comes to setting the defensive line. You can see teams at the wrong end of the ladder often do not have a player like Robson running the show in the number nine jersey.

Defence is an attitude, and the number nine, who often leads tackle counts, has such a big role to play in ensuring that attitude carries throughout the side. There are few better at it than Robson who in three games has already made 124 tackles at 94.7 per cent to start the year.

That's not to say the Cowboys' turnaround at both ends of the park isn't a complete team effort, but without a player like Robson leading through the middle third, it's tough to believe they would have started the year like they have, or have the ability to continue it.

Suncorp Stadium
   Crowd: 45,793

Things are about to get tougher for North Queensland with a trip away to play the Brisbane Broncos, and matches away against the Parramatta Eels and Cronulla Sharks as well as a home clash against the Penrith Panthers coming up in the next month, but if they can get through it relatively unscathed, it may well be time to start talking about Payten's side among the premiership contenders.

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