The 2019 NRL season presents an entirely new challenge for North Queensland Cowboys coach Paul Green, rebuilding a struggling team from the bottom up.
Green took the reins in 2014 and was blessed with inheriting a roster stacked with representative players and a future immortal in Johnathan Thurston.
His first assignment was to help the club move on from finals heartbreak amid controversial refereeing decisions in previous seasons. His next was to lead the Cowboys to a drought-breaking premiership.
The 2015 season was nothing short of miraculous for the Townsville based club, in which Green instilled a never-give-up attitude and a belief in the players that they could win any game from any position, resulting in several unbelievable comeback wins. That included a memorable grand final victory in extra time to secure the Cowboys a maiden premiership in just Green’s second year as an NRL head coach.
The 2015 premiership resulted in Green heading a player retention drive, desperate to keep his premiership-winning team together with the hope they could achieve sustained success.
Despite a preliminary final in 2016 and an eighth-place finish in 2017 which included a memorable run to the grand final, unexpected cracks appeared this year in what ended up being a forgettable season for the Cowboys. They slumped to thirteenth place.
Many pundits attributed the Cowboys fall from premiership favourites to a battle to avoid the wooden spoon because of Green’s apparent inability to evolve the team’s playing structure and his poor roster management by sticking with players who were past their best.
Thurston once again led the league in most of the attacking stats including try assists, but it was obvious the Cowboys’ structures in both attack and defence, had become too predictable. Several players looked tired and the team clearly lacked spark, speed and enthusiasm.
So for Green, the honeymoon period with his premiership winning squad and the gift of possessing one of the greatest playmakers of all time, is over.
The challenge for the Cowboys mentor is the unpleasant task of informing long-serving players of the club that their services are no longer required, recruiting new talent and developing fresh blood from their reserve grade ranks for NRL selection.
The Cowboys recruitment process has already begun with the signings of premiership winner and Dally M medallist, Ben Barba and PNG international, Nene McDonald as well as setting their sights beyond 2019 by chasing the signature of representative star, Valentine Holmes.
It will be a busy off-season for Green and his coaching staff, with the need to formulate and execute new playing structures, ensuring new players fit in to the clubs culture and challenging the experienced players to take their games to another level.
Despite the retirement of Thurston, North Queensland still possess a very talented and experienced roster, with several representative players and premiership winners, so anything less than a finals birth next season will be unacceptable.
In April this year, Green was re-signed for a further three seasons (until 2021) largely due to his success from previous seasons. However, if he is unable to return the Cowboys to the finals in 2019, his tenure as head coach of the North Queensland Cowboys may be cut short, so the pressure is on.