The North Queensland Cowboys were one of the big surprise packets last year, but now the challenge will be to keep up the rage in the new season.
Tipped widely to finish in the bottom four before a ball had been kicked, the Cowboys would ultimately finish in the top four, with Todd Payten making some excellent selections on the back of excellent recruitment to get his team pointing in the right direction.
The breakout in form of gun fullback Scott Drinkwater following the long-term injury to Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow proved many right, who had called for the ex-Melbourne Storm player to feature in the side prior to Round 1.
His form wasn't the only bright light for the men from Townsville though.
Chad Townsend and Tom Dearden combined to form an unlikely excellent halves combination, Reuben Cotter was so good that he found himself in the State of Origin side, and Valentine Holmes, widely critiqued for his move to the centres, just worked.
Everything the Cowboys touched did just that - work - and with a settled squad heading into 2023, they could be expecting more of the same as they look to push past what was a heartbreaking preliminary final loss to the Parramatta Eels.
Here is how the Cowboys line up in 2023.
Ins: Tom Chester (2024), Tom Duffy (2023), Jack Gosiewski (St George Illawarra Dragons, 2023), Jordan Lipp (2023), Riley Price (2023), Gehamat Shibasaki (2023), James Tamou (Wests Tigers, 2023)
Outs: Tom Chester (2024), Tom Duffy (2023), Jack Gosiewski (St George Illawarra Dragons, 2023), Jordan Lipp (2023), Riley Price (2023), Gehamat Shibasaki (2023), James Tamou (Wests Tigers, 2023)
Re-signed: Reuben Cotter (2025), Scott Drinkwater (2027), Mitchell Dunn (2023), Brendan Elliot (2023), Jake Granville (2023), Ben Hampton (2023), Heilum Luki (2025), Jordan McLean (2023), Jeremiah Nanai (2027), Griffin Neame (2025), Taniela Sadrugu (2023), Murray Taulagi (2026)
Off-contract end 2023: Jake Bourke, Mitchell Dunn, Brendan Elliot, Jack Gosiewski, Jake Granville, Ben Hampton, Peta Hiku, Jordan Lipp, Jordan McLean, Laitia Moceidreke, Riley Price, Taniela Sadrugu, James Tamou, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, Ragarive Wavik
Jake Bourke, Tom Chester, Reuben Cotter, Tom Dearden, Scott Drinkwater, Mitchell Dunn, Brendan Elliot, Kyle Feldt, Jack Gosiewski, Jake Granville, Ben Hampton, Coen Hess, Peta Hiku, Valentine Holmes, Luciano Leilua, Jordan Lipp, Heilum Luki, Jordan McLean, Laitia Moceidreke, Jeremiah Nanai, Griffin Neame, Riley Price, Reece Robson, Taniela Sadrugu, Gehamat Shibasaki, James Tamou, Murray Taulagi, Jason Taumalolo, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, Chad Townsend
Who plays where?
If it wasn't already, the departure of Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to the Dolphins has confirmed the Cowboys' fullback race in Townsville as a one-horse race.
Scott Drinkwater was sensational in 2022. Easily turning himself into one of the competition's best fullabcks, Drinkwater's running, ball-playing and defensive read on the game was close to unmatched.
The departure of Tabuai-Fidow has not left the Cowboys short on depth though, despite the obvious qualities the Queensland representative brought no matter where he lined up in the backline.
The experienced Brendan Elliot is one option to play at the back, but if Drinkwater runs into problems at any stage, expect Tom Chester, who has impressed at QLD Cup level and made his NRL debut last year, to be the first man in.
At this time last year, Murray Taulagi was anything but a certain starter given the uncertainty which hinged on Valentine Holmes' switch to the centres.
That worked beautifully though, while the form of Taulagi went from strength to strength during the season, with the gun winger making representative teams as a result.
He will once again line up on one flank for the Cowboys in 2023, while he will be joined by the experienced Kyle Feldt, who just refuses to slow down, scoring tries for fun and holding his reputation as a defensively sound option.
The two starting wingers won't be challenged for their spots as part of a Cowboys' team who are about as stable as there is in the competition.
The versatility of Elliot will be one option if an injury strikes, or during the Origin period when Taulagi is likely to play for Queensland, while Laitia Moceidreke is another. Gehamat Shibasaki has also joined the club, and while he primary position is at centre, he could line up on the wing if need be.
Like the wingers, the centres are about as stable as you can possibly get. As mentioned, Valentine Holmes' move to the three-quarter line saw him become one of the best in the game last year in what was something of a surprise given his credentials at fullback and on the wing.
He was joined in the centres by Peta Hiku, who had an excellent season.
The New Zealand representative doesn't get some of the credit that other players do, but he quietly goes about his role without ever shirking from his responsibility, defends excellently and will once again be a pivotal part of the Cowboys' push to September.
Elliot and Shibasaki lead the back-up brigade at centre, while utility Ben Hampton and young gun Jordan Lipp are also in the squad as options.
It seemed a combination unlikely to work or bring great results to the Cowboys before the star of last year, and left most wondering why Scott Drinkwater wasn't going to be included.
But Todd Payten pulled of a feat of coaching.
Tom Dearden and Chad Townsend were one of the NRL's best combinations in 2022 in the halves, and will look to carry that over to 2023.
Once again, Ben Hampton is the back-up to the duo, while young gun Jake Bourke, who is in a similar mould to that of Chester, will push for a debut in the top grade at some point this season.
In the middle third, the Cowboys have added James Tamou this year, and combined with the breakout form that Reuben Cotter experienced last year after transitioning out of the dummy half role, it creates some intriguing questions for Payten to answer this year.
Jordan McLean, who was good enough to be picked as an Origin player last year before an unfortunate injury, will take one of the starting prop spots, and be joined by Cotter.
Jason Taumalolo will be the starting lock, as he has been for a number of years. Payten worked out how to best use the star forward last year, and the Cowboys need more of the same this campaign.
Coen Hess has also been used in the middle in recent times, and adds good value to the Cowboys, while Griffin Neame, James Tamou, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown and Riley Price will also all be in the mix for minutes.
Reece Robson was just another one of the Cowboys' players who experienced incredible form throughout the 2022 campaign. The star dummy half, who moved from the Dragons a few years ago for an opportunity in Townsville, took over from Jake Granville as the club's permanent hooker, and had a wonderful season.
Scarily, he has more improvement left in him.
Jake Granville is still at the club and continues to be a back-up option, with the Cowboys realistically not having any other options to play dummy half in their Top 30.
Jai Hansen, on a development deal, could see some gametime this year though, particularly if Robson earns a call up to the State of Origin arena.
In the second-row, Jeremiah Nanai, who last season's breakout star, will take one of the jumpers. His try-scoring and attack is among the best of any forward in the NRL, although his defence still needs work.
With Luciano Leilua not considered due to his current no-fault stand-down, that leaves Heilum Luki to take the other spot.
He is injured to start the year though, adding more stress to the Cowboys second-row stocks. Expect Coen Hess to take a Round 1 spot there before shifting back to the middle from the bench later in the season.
Jack Gosiewski has been signed by the Cowboys from the Dragons and is a good chance of playing Round 1, while Taniela Sadrugu is coming off an excellent Rugby League World Cup campaign and adds some strong depth to the Cowboys for 2023.
Mitchell Dunn is also coming back from injury and will compete to regain a place on the fringes of the side.
At full strength, the Cowboys have some sizeable questions over their bench. Jake Granville is the most obvious option to play at 14 given his ability to play so many positions, but don't be surprised if Tom Chester is sighted in this role throughout the year.
Coen Hess missing the starting 13 means he takes a spot on the best 17 bench, while Griffin Neame must be included. The prop is a star of the future and continues to build his game.
With Hess able to play second-row, there is then a real question around whether the final spot on the bench should be a prop or a second-rower. We have gone with James Tamou, but don't be surprised if Dunn or Sadrugu compete for minutes.
Cowboys' best 17 for 2023
1. Scott Drinkwater
2. Kyle Feldt
3. Valentine Holmes
4. Peta Hiku
5. Murray Taulagi
6. Tom Dearden
7. Chad Townsend
8. Jordan McLean
9. Reece Robson
10. Reuben Cotter
11. Heilum Luki
12. Jeremiah Nanai
13. Jason Taumalolo
14. Jake Granville
15. Griffin Neame
16. Coen Hess
17. James Tamou
*Luciano Leilua not considered due to no-fault stand-down.