The North Queensland Cowboys had something of a disastrous campaign last season and will be desperate to turn it around in 2022.

Finishing in the bottom four, the men from Townsville struggled to adapt under Todd Payten.

From the baffling use of Jason Taumalolo, to a lack of creativity in attack and a defensive line that resembled a wet paper towel rather than an NRL outfit, the Cowboys have a mountain of problems to fix.

In short, Payten needs to come up with a lot of answers, and the squad simply won’t have them for 2022.

In fact, you could argue things will go backwards if they can’t find a place for Scott Drinkwater, with Chad Townsend and Tom Dearden quite similar players in their styles for the halves.

North Queensland Cowboys Scrimmage and Fan Day In Ayr
AYR, AUSTRALIA - FEBRUARY 13: Cowboys coach Todd Payten looks on during a North Queensland Cowboys Scrimmage game against the Townsville Blackhawks at Rugby Park on February 13, 2021 in Ayr, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

What they do in attack won’t matter in the slightest if they can’t work out their defence though, letting in a staggering 748 points in 2021 which gave them the league’s worst defensive record - 38 points worse than wooden spooners the Canterbury Bulldogs.

So, if we were to remove all contract and salary cap implications from the competition and allowed the Cowboys to steal any player, who would it be?

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Current Cowboys’ squad for 2022

Daejarn Asi, Kane Bradley, Lachlan Burr, Ben Condon, Reuben Cotter, Tom Dearden, Scott Drinkwater, Mitchell Dunn, 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, Tyreece Woods

Gaps in the best 17

The Cowboys biggest problem in 2021 was their defence, and that starts in the middle.

As much as you could argue they need an excellent half, if Payten picks the best 17, then Scott Drinkwater features alongside either Chad Townsend or Tom Dearden, and that on paper wouldn’t be a terrible combination.

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 14: Chad Townsend of the Sharks passes during the round one NRL match between the St George Illawarra Dragons and the Cronulla Sharks at Netstrata Jubilee Stadium, on March 14, 2021, in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Matt King/Getty Images)

With Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow set to breakout at fullback and Reece Robson at hooker, backed up by Reuben Cotter and Jake Granville, you could actually argue the Cowboys’ spine is good enough to see them springboard up the ladder.

Their outside backs receive a boost too with Peta Hiku’s arrival, while Valentine Holmes, Kyle Feldt and either Connelly Lemuelu or Murray Taulagi are all solid enough in the outside backs, although it could be argued an elite winger who can defend would help strengthen the team up.

That most certainly isn’t their most pressing issue though. The Cowboys have some good young forwards coming through the system in Heilum Luki, Ben Condon, Tom Gilbert, Griffin Neame and Jeremiah Nanai, but they need a leader to guide the way.

That said, a prop, and some strong edge forwards are at the top of the list when it comes to pressing needs for the Cowboys.

Coen Hess and Jordan McLean isn’t a starting front row which strikes fear into anyone, while Mitchell Dnn and one of the youngsters - probably Luki or Condon - isn’t a second-row which is going to go close to challenging, let alone competing, with the top sides.

BATHURST, AUSTRALIA - MAY 04: Coen Hess of the Cowboys is tackled during the round nine NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the North Queensland Cowboys at Carrington Park on May 4, 2018 in Bathurst, Australia. (Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images)

Defence starts in those four positions, and so it’s little surprise the Cowboys were as leaky as they were on that end of the park last season.

A strong, experienced duo up front and on the edge could make a world of difference for the Cowboys, while also making the job of Drinkwater and his partner achievable.

The candidates to steal

Option 1: Payne Haas (Brisbane Broncos)
If you're looking for a front-rower with a big engine and a willingness to do the hard yards for his team, then you'd look no further than Payne Haas.

He might still be youthful and relatively inexperienced compared to some of the other big names, but he is the best prop in the competition and it isn't even close.

For the Cowboys, they need that big-minute, high output sort of player to lead the forward pack and drag them out of the numerous tricky spots they are sure to find themselves in even moving into 2022, as they did in 2021.

Haas is the ultimate description of what they need.

And a forward pack with he and Jason Taumalolo, along with Tabuai-Fidow playing off it is a combination NRL fans would simply love to see.

All Run Metres
Tackle Breaks

Option 2: James Fisher-Harris (Penrith Panthers)
If the Cowboys were going to go for a more experienced figure in the middle third - and it does need a discussion because of the youth in their squad - then Fisher-Harris, a premiership-winning prop at Penrith - would be the way to go.

There are two elements to this. Fisher-Harris is a slightly different player to Haas and may not give as many minutes, but his level of output and production is on a similar level.

Where Fisher-Harris has a point of difference to the Brisbane prop is experience.

He has been around for a long time and experienced all the success you can imagine. A representative player with two grand finals under his belt in the past two years as well as a premiership.

It's hard to understate how much that would mean to the Cowboys and their young crop of forwards, but also how much they would benefit from having a proven winner at the club.

You can't underestimate just how important Fisher-Harris was to Penrith's premiership push this season, and it makes him the ideal candidate for the Cowboys.

All Run Metres
Tackle Breaks

Option 3: Kenneath Bromwich (Melbourne Storm)
This selection is potentially slightly controversial.

Is Kenneath Bromwich the competition's best second-rower? No, absolutely not.

But does he provide consistency, a winning mentality and do all the little things right on a week-to-week basis without fail? Yes, absolutely.

It's hard to remember the last time the Melbourne left edge second-rower had a bad game. Of course, a part of that is playing in the Storm system, but he is a player who runs hard, has a knack for finding the gap, and has footwork and ball-playing skills among the best in the competition when it comes to rating pure forwards.

He is the sort of player who would be an excellent mentor for the youngsters, and fill down a spot to play no-nonsense footy for 80 minutes every single week.

The Cowboys need players like Bromwich to take any strides forward.

Tackles Made
Tackle Breaks

Option 4: Brian To’o (Penrith Panthers)
While a winger may not be the most pressing issue for the Townsville-based side, they certainly wouldn't be taking any steps backwards to bring To'o in.

They may not need his metres given Kyle Feldt and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow are noted for their strong running of the football, but they do need other elements of his game.

To'o is undoubtedly one of the NRL's best finishers, and his defence is second to none on the edge.

It's that defence which the Cowboys so sorely lacked right across the park last year, and what they need to improve on if they have any show in 2022.

All Run Metres
Tackles Made

The verdict

Any of the four options would improve the Cowboys dramatically, but it's hard to see any of them being a better fit than the wrecking-ball Haas.

He has the ability to be a game-breaker, and the forward the Cowboys need, producing big minutes and high output, all rolled into one elite player.

He will only continue to improve, and while he doesn't bring the experience to help the youngsters, he has played at Origin level which is worth something in that discussion.

Payne Haas (Brisbane Broncos)

BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 16: Payne Haas of the Broncos in action during the round 22 NRL match between the Brisbane Broncos and the Penrith Panthers at Suncorp Stadium on August 16, 2019 in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images)

Next up in this series, we will look at the Parramatta Eels.