The North Queensland Cowboys are set to miss the finals for a second straight season, yet Paul Green has managed to escape the NRL coaching pressure cooker.
The focus of the Sydney-centric media on underperforming Sydney-based coaches and the Titans coaching saga throughout 2019 has allowed another season of woe for the Townsville-based club to go relatively unnoticed.
Green’s tenure as Cowboys coach has taken a familiar path to that of Michael McGuire’s time at Souths. A finals force for a few seasons, including a drought-breaking premiership, the side’s slipped to missing the finals in back-to-back seasons with the same core group of players because the team’s structures and game plans have become stale.
It doesn’t mean McGuire forgot how to coach; both coach and club needed a fresh approach and fresh ideas. After McGuire was moved on, Anthony Seibold took over and completely refreshed their attacking game to take virtually the same roster from 12th in 2017 to third in 2018.
The main criticisms of Green’s coaching are his apparent lack of innovation and inability to evolve the team’s attacking structures from the success of 2014-17.
They currently sit second last for average points scored this season and have registered only 30 points or more three times since the start of 2018 – they were rounds 22, 24 and 25 last season, when a player named Johnathan Thurston was racking up try assists.
In Paul Green’s defence, it’s been a season of many distractions, with the sacking of star recruit Ben Barba just weeks before Round 1 and untimely injuries to key players throughout the season. They’ve also been on the receiving end of some poor refereeing decisions.
But using these issues as an excuse for Green only covers up the cracks, as there are several key areas and players that have not only failed to improve but have gone backwards.
Coen Hess is the biggest concern. He burst onto the scene in 2016 with raw power, aggression and skill and was rewarded with Origin selection. But since then he’s been lacklustre. He scored 17 barnstorming tries in his first 35 games but in 19 games this season he’s crossed the try line only once.
We’ve witnessed the careers of Jake Granville and Justin O’Neill go backwards over the past couple of seasons. Ben Hampton hadn’t fulfilled his full potential before he went down injured.
Lachlan Coote and Ethan Lowe went from premiership players to also-rans who weren’t playing at NRL standard. They’ve rediscovered their best footy since leaving the club, with Coote dominating in the UK Super League and Lowe earning an Origin debut since moving to Souths.
Reports of player unrest surfaced a few months ago, and although the senior playing group poured cold water on those rumours, Coote blasted his former coach, saying he wasn’t upfront with him in regards to his form and future at the club and railing against a lack of communication. He felt Green had lost respect for him for no reason.
If you choose to believe what Coote said about his former coach, you’d have to question Green’s man-management skills when it comes to his players.
One could argue the plethora of young talent at North Queensland’s disposal aren’t being developed properly.
Gideon Gela-Mosby is one of the fastest players in the NRL and should be the Cowboys’ version of the Storm’s Josh Addo-Carr. Corey Jensen was a consistent performer off the bench in his 18 games in 2018 but has been used only sparingly this season despite strong performances for the Townsville Blackhawks and selection for the Queensland Residents representative side. Mitch Dunn is a backrower with the skill set of a Wade Graham, who had limited opportunities before he was injured.
Then there’s young Jake Clifford, a future representative half who was inexplicitly overlooked in the first few rounds after impressing in the preseason trials. He looks to be stifled by being forced to play to structure, which has limited his creative ability but when he's backed himself to dummy and run, he's found the try line.
Another area of concern has been team selections over the past two seasons. Although the Cowboys have been down on luck as far as injuries are concerned, Green has constantly picked players out of position.
For example, Coen Hess, a forward, has been selected to play centre for the past couple of weeks despite the likes of Enari Tuala, Murry Tualagi, Javid Bowen and Dan Russell all being available. There seems to be a perceived lack of faith in young players coming through the Cowboys' system and a reluctance to drop experienced players who are out of form. For much of 2018 Green persisted with picking the same team that was losing every week.
The Cowboys have copped plenty of criticism for their roster management as well. You can understand the club wanting to keep their premiership team together after 2015, but in hindsight they made several blunders and lost the likes of Kalyn Ponga, Viliame Kikau, Brandon Smith and Jahrome Hughes, to name just a few.
You might ask why a club would sack a coach who won a premiership in 2015 and made another grand final just two years ago.
In 2014, Green was fortunate to inherit a team that was already primed to win a premiership. To his credit, he added the missing ingredients to make the premiership dream become a reality for North Queensland.
But it’s the miracle run to the 2017 grand final that perhaps covered up the cracks that have led the team into freefall ever since.
Green deserves his fair share of the credit for how the Cowboys performed throughout that finals series, but when you look back to Round 26 of that season, had the Dragons defeated the Bulldogs, they would have qualified for the finals and the Cowboys would have finished ninth, meaning Green would currently be facing his third straight season missing the finals.
So, two grand finals suggest he has the runs on the board, but you can’t discount the element of luck either. You could argue they’re in a rebuilding phase after the retirement of Johnathan Thurston, but they qualified for a grand final without him and still have a team stacked with representative players.
Green will go down as arguably North Queensland’s greatest ever coach, but the Cowboys look like a team desperate for a fresh start, both collectively and individually.