The future of the North Queensland Cowboys looked promising.
Having won the Grand Final in 2015 and falling one performance short of a second grand final appearance the following season, the Townsville-based club looked to be a powerhouse side for the years to come.
After season ending injuries to co-captains Johnathan Thurston and Matthew Scott early on in 2017, many pundits drew a line through the Cowboys and their top eight aspirations. Enter Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo.
Having been integral to North Queensland’s premiership success two years prior and touted the future of the club, Morgan and Taumalolo reached another gear, taking the club to a second grand final appearance in the space of three seasons.
Limping into the finals in eight position, career best form from the star duo saw North Queensland upset Cronulla, Parramatta, and the Roosters before being defeated by the Storm in the decider.
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Entering 2018, North Queensland were the only side in the competition alongside the Melbourne Storm to have not missed out on finals contention every season since 2011.
With Johnathan Thurston and Matthew Scott back on deck alongside international signing Jordan McLean, the Cowboys were heavy favourites to take out the title. Unfortunately, a combination of setbacks saw the Cowboys underdeliver.
How did a premiership force decline so rapidly during a time where their premiership window looked wide open for seasons to come?
Thurston and Scott returned a yard off the pace. Jordan McLean played just 10 games before his season ended with injury and Michael Morgan suffered the shoulder injury against the Warriors which now looks set to send him to an early retirement all these years later.
Paul Green’s game plan was also heavily criticised with the team not evolving with the faster game, instead sticking to the tried and tested low-risk block plays which saw them win the competition in 2015.
Stubbornly, the Cowboys stuck to this formula in both 2019 and the 2020 seasons with oppositions teams being able to read their attacking structure all too easily. A 13th placed finish in 2018 followed by a 14th placed finish the following season saw the pressure mounted on premiership winning coach Green.
Following a Round 10 defeat at the hands of the Penrith Panthers in 2020, Green stepped down as head coach following just three wins from 10 starts.
Prioritising the likes of Lachlan Coote, Jake Granville, Gavin Cooper, and Scott Bolton saw the club lose promising rookies who have turned into international stars elsewhere such as Kalyn Ponga, Viliame Kikau, Jahrome Hughes, Brandon Smith and Braden Hamlin-Uele.
Re-signing co-captain Matthew Scott also lost the club the signature of James Tamou, who’s career continued to blossom elsewhere and even captained a young Penrith Panthers outfit to a grand final last season. Other players who have left the club in recent years and found success elsewhere include Corey Horsburgh, Felise Kaufusi and Ethan Lowe.
Rumours of in-house rifts have run rampant at the club over the past several seasons and matters have escalated over the past fortnight with reports a crisis meeting was held between new head coach Todd Payten and star players Jason Taumalolo and Valentine Holmes.
With three loses to start the 2021 season how do the Cowboys turn things around? The club needs to persist with head coach Payten for starters as he looks to fix the clubs embattled culture.
Josh McGuire said it best during an interview with Fox Sports during the week.
“There’s a soft underbelly at the moment, we have no steel under tough circumstances.”
“We just fold and it’s becoming embarrassing.”
“Players turn up to training on Monday and don’t care, you’ve got to want to play footy.”
With his players lacking resilience and drive, It’s time for Todd Payten to swing the axe. Much has been said about limiting Jason Taumalolo’s involvement in the middle third this season in an attempt to give him greater career longevity. Would it not be smarter to play him on an edge for 80 minutes rather than restrict him to just 50 minutes a game at Lock?
Reuben Cotter has come into his own over the past fortnight whilst starting in the position Taumalolo has made his own over the past several seasons and reminds some of a young Dallas Johnson with the heart he shows. Tom Gilbert is another no-frills player waiting in the wings.
Valentine Holmes is on a contract worth upwards of $900,000 a year and is being played on the wing. He needs to play in the Number One jersey for the Cowboys to play their best football. With his return to rugby league being very stop start since arriving back from the NFL, Holmes is yet to be given a chance to re-adjust to life at Fullback.
Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow has the potential to become one of the games best finishers, moving him from the centres and onto a wing would be much more promising for the Cowboys attack.
Coen Hess and Jake Granville have been given chance after chance to reclaim their form from previous seasons and have yet to deliver on the loyalty shown to them by the current and previous coaching staff. Both must go if the Cowboys are wanting to re-emerge as a top-eight threat this season.
Cowboys best 17
- Valentine Holmes
- Kyle Feldt
- Murray Taulagi
- Esan Marsters
- Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow
- Scott Drinkwater
- Jake Clifford
- Francis Molo
- Reece Robson
- Jordan McLean
- Tom Gilbert
- Jason Taumalolo
- Reuben Cotter
- Mitch Dunn
- Josh McGuire
- Peter Hola
- Corey Jensen