If you think the North Queensland Cowboys are set for a resurgent return to the Top 4, or even the Top 8 in 2019, you're wrong.
The Cowboys and coach Paul Green endured a very difficult and trying 2018 which saw legendary halfback and captain Johnathan Thurston say goodbye to his playing days. Okay, maybe their 2017 standout Michael Morgan only featured in 11 games last season however even Thurston and their other star 'JT,' Taumalolo couldn't save the sinking ship, as they stuttered to a 13th place finish with just eight wins.
The loss of their influential halfback will be hard to deal with. Although Te Maire Martin did an admirable job of filling in for him in 2017, he now appears to have the full-time role and the pressure is on his shoulders to have a strong year in support of Michael Morgan in the halves.
Despite the retirement of Thurston and Antonio Winterstein, and the departures of Lachlan Coote and Kane Linnett, the Cowboys have still maintained 10 players of their 2015 Premiership-winning team. Although this was a good thing in the first 1-2 years after their triumph, the team continues to age.
Scott Bolton is turning 32, Gavin Cooper and Matthew Scott are turning 34 and Jake Granville has just hit 30. It can be argued that Cooper was a standout in last year's underachieving side but he is well and truly into his twilight years now.
Matt Scott has been an outstanding servant for the Cowboys and an ever-present figure of their forward pack for well over a decade. Unfortunately, Scott has only played 20 games across the last two seasons with injuries preventing consistent performers and leading to the front-rower to be cut from the Test side and the Queensland line-up.
The Cowboys have had a very rough start to 2019 with an awful flood in Townsville affecting their pre-season preparations enormously. Several Cowboys players and officials had to be evacuated from their homes as a result of the unrelenting rain they received.
The weather proved to be a more important distraction to the major, yet simple, decision to sack new signing Ben Barba before even playing a game. Barba was sacked following an alleged incident of domestic violence towards his wife, outside a Townsville casino. This has blighted the Cowboys' Premiership chances so early into the year with the club now scrambling to find a replacement.
Utility Ben Hampton is a big chance to start the season as the no.1 while there are fresh rumours that North Queensland are on the hunt for Broncos utility back Jordan Kahu. Kahu appears to be the unlucky man to miss out on Brisbane's backline despite playing 95 times in six years for the club.
I've put forward a number of reasons why I think the Cowboys will struggle this year, however, here are 3 big ways that the Cowboys could prove ME wrong.
1. Michael Morgan recaptures his 2017 form
We all knew how talented Morgan was by this stage in his career. But no one was prepared to see how far he could take the Cowboys without Thurston by his side. Morgan was almost untouchable as he led his side to a second grand final appearance in three years, falling just short to a strong Melbourne side. If he returns to this form with full fitness, who knows what he can do.
2. The Cowboys forward pack lays the platform for the backline
As I've already touched on, key members of the Cowboys' forward pack are reaching their twilight years. Coen Hess and Jason Taumalolo on the other hand, are in their prime and if both are at their barnstorming best, they can lay the platform for quick attacking forays into the opposition half. Jordan McLean had a rough first season at his new club due to injury with the tall prop on the cusp of a NSW jumper before he was forced to sit out most of the season. New signing Josh McGuire was a quality pick-up and he can bring experience and aggression to one of the biggest forward-packs in the competition.
3. Te Maire Martin has a breakout year
We've seen plenty of glimpses of Martin's talent but we haven't seen a full season of consistent form from the Kiwi representative yet. Maybe this is his year to shine, after all, it may have to be his time to prove his worth to his club for the 23-year-old.
I don't have Cowboys in my top 8 for 2019 because with the crucial replacements they've had to make to their side, their aging key members, and a tough and tumultuous pre-season, I can't see them making it. If they push through and are still in the hunt come September, it will make one hell of a story.