The North Queensland Cowboys have plenty of questions to answer at the selection table heading into the 2022 season, with some baffling recruitment calls in the off-season.
Todd Payten’s side had a disaster in 2021, finishing in the bottom four despite on paper looking at least an outside chance to fight for a top eight spot.
They finished the season with the NRL’s worst defensive record and an attacking record which wasn’t much better, going on a staggering losing streak during the second half of the season.
When the Cowboys lose the ability to win even at home, things are always going to go pear-shaped, and that’s exactly what happened to the men from Townsville at the back-end of 2021.
Payten’s side need a dramatic turnaround in 2022, but whether that is even close to possible is yet to be seen.
Here is the 17 who might have a chance of turning things around.
Ins: Brendan Elliot (2022), Peta Hiku (New Zealand Warriors, 2023), Jamayne Taunoa-Brown (New Zealand Warriors, 2023), Chad Townsend (Cronulla Sharks, 2024)
Outs: Javid Bowen (retired), Wiremu Greig (Parramatta Eels), Peter Hola (Canberra Raiders), Corey Jensen (Brisbane Broncos), Esan Marsters (Gold Coast Titans), Josh McGuire (St George Illawarra Dragons), Francis Molo (St George Illawarra Dragons), Michael Morgan (retired), Justin O'Neill (retired), Shane Wright (Salford Red Devils)
Re-signed: Ben Condon (2023), Scott Drinkwater (2023), Jake Granville (2023), Ben Hampton (2022), Coen Hess (2024), Connelly Lemuelu (2022), Griffin Neame (2023), Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow (2023), Murray Taulagi (2023)
Daejarn Asi, Kane Bradley, Lachlan Burr, Ben Condon, Reuben Cotter, Tom Dearden, Scott Drinkwater, Mitchell Dunn, Brendan Elliot, Kyle Feldt, Tom Gilbert, Jake Granville, Ben Hampton, Coen Hess, Peta Hiku, Valentine Holmes, Connelly Lemuelu, Heilum Luki, Jordan McLean, Laitia Moceidreke, Jeremiah Nanai, Griffin Neame, Emry Pere, Riley Price, Reece Robson, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Murray Taulagi, Jason Taumalolo, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, Chad Townsend
Who plays where?
Valentine Holmes might have been the fullback for most of the 2021 season, but that simply won't - and can't - be the case this year.
He was error-prone at the best of times, and while he had his moments in attack, the Cowboys need a rock-solid link at the back if they are going to go anywhere in 2022.
That becomes even more so the case when young gun Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow is ready to take over the number one jersey and had some excellent games at the back in the final rounds last year.
Holmes is there as back-up - and so is Scott Drinkwater and Brendan Elliot - but Tabuai-Fidow must be the number one.
There has been a lot of talk that Holmes will move into the centres, but that can't be allowed to happen either.
The Cowboys single biggest issue last year was defence. Holmes is still a weapon in the NRL, but he needs to play in his best position to do that, and there is simply no doubt that the position he has excelled in more than any other over the years is on the wing.
That means last year's primary wing combination - Murray Taulagi and Kyle Feldt - are left to fight it out for a single position.
Feldt brings with him experience and a freakish finishing ability, but the improvement of Taulagi mounts a sizeable case that he should be included in the side.
It's a difficult one, but Feldt's experience wins him the spot, with the likes of Elliot, Laitia Moceidreke and Kane Bradley then in the squad as back up.
Peta Hiku's arrival from the New Zealand Warriors is a good one for the Cowboys and he will undoubtedly slot straight into a centre position - a role the Cowboys do appear to be a little shorter in depth on.
Taulagi could yet be considered for a centre spot, but given the revolving door backline the Cowboys has last year, it's unlikely Payten will play him there after not doing it once in 2021.
That means the second spot likely comes down to Connelly Lemuelu, Brendan Elliot or utilities Ben Hampton and Daejarn Asi.
The signing of Elliot brings substantial utility value to the Cowboys, but it'll be a worry if he is in their best 17.
Hampton and Asi both had games in the centres at the back-end of last year and performed strongly, at the expense of Lemuelu, however, he is the established centre in the side and should get the gig early on.
Don't be surprised if Asi gets more than a share of time in the centres during 2022 though.
The halves are up there with the more baffling recruitment decisions any club has made this off-season.
Instead of signing two players who complement each other, the Cowboys have, over the past 12 months, signed two players who are splitting images of each other, the only difference being experience and age.
It's highly unlikely they have signed Tom Dearden or Chad Townsend to sit in reserve grade, but that fact alone should worry Cowboys' fans immensely.
Both players have a reasonable kicking game and ability to manage a team, but the creativity side is lacking. In short, there isn't room for both of them if the Cowboys are going to be successful.
Particularly when Scott Drinkwater is in the side and brings the X-Factor the Cowboys will desperately be chasing.
We will name Drinkwater and Dearden, but don't be surprised to see Townsend play.
Starting at lock, and if Todd Payten spends a single minute with Jason Taumalolo playing anywhere other than the 13 jumper this year, there will be serious questions asked.
Taumalolo needs to go back to his big-minute, big-production enforcer-type role for the Cowboys to have any say in the race for the top eight.
The two spots in number eight and ten are a little less set in stone, with the arrival of Jamayne Taunoa-Brown complicating things even further.
A crop of young props at the Cowboys - Emry Pere, Griffin Neame and Tom Gilbert - will compete for a spot in the middle with experienced campaigners Lachlan Burr and Jordan McLean, while Taunoa-Brown has plenty of potential.
Coen Hess also turned himself into a strong middle forward last year and should take the first spot in the team. McLean's performances weren't up to scratch and so he should be overlooked, with recruit Taunoa-Brown starting the season.
Reece Robson will be the starting hooker for the Cowboys. He made 911 tackles across his 24 games last year, took the line on with his running game and was a genuine bright spot for the men from Townsville in an otherwise completely and utterly miserable season.
There is no question the former St George Illawarra Dragon is the number one option at number nine.
He will be backed up by the ageing Jake Granville and Reuben Cotter, who added lock to his versatility last year to win a spot on the bench.
The second row, like the middle third, sees the Cowboys with plenty of youthful options. Ben Condon, Heilum Luki and Jeremiah Nanai present an exciting prospect for Cowboys fans, with the trio all performing exceptionally during the second half of last year.
The only question is which two start, and which one is put back on the bench?
We will take Luki and Condon to start based on the experience of both starting, and more games, from the 2021 season. The trio are all youthful though and will provide plenty of exciting moments for Cowboys' fans.
Riley Price is the other option, but is a little raw for first-grade at this point. Expect to see him debut late in the season.
The utility will be either Ben Hampton or Daejarn Asi. Hampton has experience in first grade, but Asi has all the talent. He has only made ten NRL appearances, but has looked strong in a number of positions in doing so, playing both centre and fullback last year, but also having the talent to play in the halves.
Reuben Cotter's transformation into a lock, while still having the ability to back up Robson at hooker means he takes the next spot on the bench.
The other middle forward will be intriguing. Jordan McLean is the most likely, but not the best option to be in the Cowboys' 17 after some underwhelming years. With a crop of young props, this spot should go to the work-a-holic Tom Gilbert.
The last spot is Jeremiah Nanai's, but the depth across the forwards is solid for the Cowboys.
The best 17
1. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow
2. Valentine Holmes
3. Peta Hiku
4. Connelly Lemuelu
5. Kyle Feldt
6. Scott Drinkwater
7. Thomas Dearden
8. Coen Hess
9. Reece Robson
10. Jamayne Taunoa-Brown
11. Heilum Luki
12. Ben Condon
13. Jason Taumalolo
14. Daejarn Asi
15. Reuben Cotter
16. Tom Gilbert
17. Jeremiah Nanai
Other best 17s
Gold Coast Titans
Manly Sea Eagles
New Zealand Warriors
South Sydney Rabbitohs
Agree with a lot of that Scotty but I don’t think Payten does. They’ve all but confirmed Holmes to center and Hammer to FB. IMO, there is very little Hammer offers at FB that cannot be achieved at center. He is a very good defender, much better than Holmes but it’s a skill wasted at FB. Holmes has better ball playing and experience to talk up like a good FB should.
Payten also said last week that, barring injury, Townsend will start in 2022. Certainly agree about JT13, work him like a rented mule, the team needs his metres and he needs the confidence of running over guys.
What chance McLean ends up back at the Storm next year?
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