Last year the North Queensland Cowboys came within one game of a chance to defend the crown they won in 2015.
NRL history shows just how hard it is to go back to back, with no side being able to achieve the feat since the competition’s inception in 1998.
Rugby league history shows just how hard it is. Not since the Broncos won the ARL competition in 1992 and 1993 has a side gone back-to-back in a unified competition.
Once again, the Cowboys came within one single game of going to the big dance for a second straight season.
They did so due to their bucking of one of the NRL’s most noticeable trends in that they were able to keep their entire 2015 premiership winning roster together.
Salary cap restraints make that almost impossible in the modern game. A young player emerges, stars become worth more money than his current side can afford and ends up elsewhere.
Souths lost Sam Burgess following their 2014 title win. The Sharks said goodbye to Michael Ennis following their 2016 win.
The Cowboys managed to keep their entire Grand Final winning side together. The exact same 17 ran out onto the park in round one in 2016.
If not for one of the most intense semi-finals in recent memory, combined with running into a well-rested and extremely determined Sharks side, they very well could have achieved what no side has been able to in the NRL era.
Another 12 months has passed and although the Cowboys have again managed to keep the majority of their side together, they have lost former Kangaroo props James Tamou and Ben Hannant.
The Cowboys, and rugby league’s most influential player, Johnathan Thurston will turn 34 just a few weeks into the 2017 season.
Are the Cowboys still amongst the premiership favourites heading into 2017?
Most NRL bookies have the Cowboys around the $8 to $10 mark to capture the title, placing them in the top three or four teams.
That’s right about where I place them too. Canberra, Penrith, and the Storm are the teams listed above them, but you’d have to think the Cowboys are there or thereabouts once again.
Thurston continues to prove that age is just a number. At 33, and having announced that 2017 will be his last wearing the rep jumpers of the Maroons and Kangaroos, Thurston could play another season or two beyond this one.
Jason Taumalolo has become the most destructive forward in the game. His co-winning of the 2016 Dally M medal shows how highly regarded, and important, the Kiwi enforcer has become.
Michael Morgan is the most likely to take over the Queensland number six when his teammate Thurston pulls up stumps and seems to be more at home in the playmaking role after his move from fullback.
Gavin Cooper and Ethan Lowe had brilliant 2016 seasons, with Lowe possibly even surpassing his 2015 efforts.
Lachlan Coote, despite a horror finals series, remains a superstar fullback. He put those less-than-stellar games behind him and represented Scotland in the four nations with honour and plenty of talent.
Justin O’Neill is now firmly entrenched at representative level. His centre partner Kane Linnett, much like Coote, also represented Scotland in the four-nations.
Feldt and Winterstein are the most underrated finishers in the game.
Matt Scott is still an elite front rower. Jake Granville is one of the most creative and exciting number nines outside of the Smiths and Hodgson’s of the game.
Paul Green has an NRL title on his coaching resume and was able to keep the side motivated to the point they were able to again defeat the Broncos in the finals, and reach a Grand Final playoff.
Tamou and Hannant are big losses, literally. Scott Bolton will likely step up into the run on side, with the likes of Hess and Asiata to play bigger roles in 2017.
Former Storm utility, Ben Hampton has joined the club, while the likes of 2016 Holden Cup team of the year members Kalyn Ponga, Gideon Gela-Mosby and Brandon Smith are waiting in the wings.
All will likely see NRL action, especially over the Origin period, with Hampton expected to be named in the top 17 for round one.
On paper, there seems to be absolutely no reason why the Cowboys can’t push for yet another top four finish, and perhaps even a second premiership in three years.
The large majority of their title-winning team remains. There are no real injury concerns. The structures that have been so successful over the past two seasons remain.
Johnathan Thurston remains.
Jason Taumalolo is now the game’s best forward.
I think I just talked myself into a sneaky $20 Cowboys to win the NRL Premiership bet.