If there is one thing for sure in 2023, it's that the North Queensland Cowboys' right-hand side defence has fallen apart.

For a side that hosted a preliminary final last year, it's a tale of how the mighty have fallen.

Truth be told, this is exactly how the majority of pundits expected the Cowboys to perform last year, but not this year.

However, the club now hold a three-and-six record after nine games, and their finals hopes, without a significant turnaround in the next month, will be all but dashed.

And sure, they have failed in plenty of elements right across the park. Their stagnant and, at times, downright unappealing attack has been a horror show, with a lack of speed, accuracy and directness about it.

They haven't been helped by injuries either, but a significant issue worked out by almost everyone who has faced the Cowboys this year, but is yet to be mentioned widely, is the right edge in defence.

Opposition teams are simply cutting the edge to ribbons this year, with Kyle Feldt, Peta Hiku, Chad Townsend and Jeremiah Nanai featuring at full strength.

The issue, on the surface, is an obvious one. All of Feldt, Hiku and Townsend are far closer to the back end of their careers than the start and on the wrong side of 30. They have all evidently lost a step this year, but when they are being protected by a second-rower who is, granted still young and learning, but also one of the competition's worst second-rowers defensively if you were to purely base it on statistics, there is a major issue.

It was developed off a hypothesis watching Cowboys' games and thinking the edge defensively looked slow, but the footage, decision-making and statistics are alarming, while some of the coaching has been downright terrible.

Those players - Feldt, Hiku and Townsend - have been found wanting time and time again based on their own lack of speed, their own decisions, or the decisions being made from from players tasked with defending further infield. This is the NRL, and every opposition attack is capable of finding ways through such major mistakes being made consistently.

But there is also the structure with which the Cowboys are playing, often seeing players late to commit on rushing, and a defensive line which is far too compressed and making it too easy for opposition attacking players who are picking them to pieces.

This a team who have gone from conceding an average of 15.04 points per game across the course of the 2022 season, to 23.6 points per game in the opening nine rounds of 2023. That has left the club in 16th spot on the table, and while they have a bye in hand, to win the standard 12 games required and make the finals, they will likely need to win 9 of their last 15 games to have a shot at playing finals football.

After nine rounds, the Cowboys have conceded 38 tries. 24 of those can be attributed to errors on the right defensive edge, ten on their left defensive edge, and four in the middle third.

While most sides will naturally concede more on their right defensive edge given the best attacking players tend to feature on the left for their own teams, the disparity at the Cowboys is enormous.

Of those 24 tries scored on that side of the park by opposition teams, Jeremiah Nanai has the worst ratio of being either partially or fully responsible for tries being let in to games played, with Hiku, Townsend and Feldt all in the top six on that stat.

Here is the full breakdown:

Player Involvements Games Average
Nanai 16 7 2.29
Hiku 14 7 2.00
Shibasaki 4 2 2.00
Townsend 17 9 1.89
Elliott 3 2 1.50
Feldt 11 9 1.22
Gosiewski 3 3 1.00
Dearden 8 9 0.89
Drinkwater 5 6 0.83
Holmes 7 9 0.78
Chester 5 7 0.71
Taulagi 5 7 0.71
Neame 3 6 0.50
Price 1 2 0.50
Taunoa-Brown 3 9 0.33
Taumalolo 2 7 0.29
Robson 2 9 0.22
Hess 2 9 0.22
McLean 0 7 0.00
Cotter 0 7 0.00
Granville 0 9 0.00
Tamou 0 4 0.00
Luki 0 2 0.00
Dunn 0 4 0.00

The fact that Nanai has had either a full or partial hand in conceding 16 tries across the seven games he has played this season should have alarm bells ringing for Todd Payten.

The average of 2.29 involvements per game is more than the NRL's best defensive outfit - the Penrith Panthers - have conceded per game all season. For reference, that's 17 tries in 8 games at 2.13 tries conceded per game.

As a whole, the right defensive edge has conceded or been responsible for 2.67 tries per game - again, more than the Panthers, and some other clubs.

If that right defensive edge suddenly starts to improve over the next four weeks with Nanai out suspended, then questions will be asked.

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Without a game against the Dolphins which was an anomaly, the Cowboys would have only conceded five tries on their left defensive edge this season - that's an edge featuring, from the outside in, Murray Taulagi, Valentine Holmes, Tom Dearden, and Coen Hess or Jack Gosiewski.

Here is how it has happened for the Cowboys.

Round 1

North Queensland Cowboys 19 defeat Canberra Raiders 18

The Cowboys' season in defence started poorly by letting Raiders' bench prop Emre Guler burst through a tackle. The next two tries both came on the edge with Tom Starling scoring off a somewhat lucky grubber although only created as possible by all of Hiku, Nanai and Townsend rushing up. The last to Jack Wighton came off a short drop-out saw all of Nanai, Townsend, Hiku and Feldt out of position.

The lack of communication is plain to see here, with Hiku on the ground, Feldt in the challenge, both having come off their wing and the combination of Nanai and Townsend still inside where the challenge took place. As soon as the ball lands in Wighton's path, it's straightforward.

In all, perhaps, there was some bad luck defensively in the opening round of the season, and some good luck on the scoreboard with a field goal icing the game.

Round 2

Brisbane Broncos 28 defeat North Queensland Cowboys 16

It would be fair to say that Round 2 was something of a disaster against the Broncos. It started off with a well-executed grubber from Adam Reynolds for the Kurt Capewell try that could have undone any defensive outfit, but what followed was a mess.

The next two tries, to Ezra Mam and Kotoni Staggs, saw Jeremiah Nanai make a pair of late decisions to rush inside ball runners which ultimately left his teammates high and dry.

The lack of communication in the long-range Mam try was appalling, with Nanai rushing up on at first a decoy of Thomas Flegler, and then Mam himself, but Townsend and Hiku sat back without pace or movement, while Feldt was well in from the sideline, setting himself up to be inevitably out-numbered. That allowed Reece Walsh to skip to the outside and create havoc.

As you can see below, Hiku and Feldt are stagnant despite Walsh already moving to the outside of Townsend. The indecision is created partially by Nanai's actions toward Mam, and partially by the lack of movement which is evident from the get-go.

By the time Walsh runs 15 metres, Feldt feels like he has to come in even further, leaving an open path for Oates in space. Mam by now has recovered from Nanai's shot to back up on the inside, while Nanai is still nowhere to be seen having rushed out of the line originally.

There was almost a carbon copy not long after, although overruled for a lack of grounding. Reynolds this time evaded a rushing Nanai who wound up way out of position and found Walsh to his outside, who again had space to work with created by the indecision ahead of him, with Townsend and Hiku both backpedalling in a diagonal direction away from the action, allowing Walsh to generate speed, and his outside runners to come onto the ball at full tilt.

By the time Walsh skipped to the outside of Hiku, Feldt committed, ultimately targeting both Walsh and Staggs, with Oates in space on the edge. By now, you can already see Hiku and Townsend realising they have been burnt for speed and starting to scramble. A Drinkwater shoulder charge was the only thing stopping Oates from scoring in a last-ditch effort.

Kotoni Staggs would score on the right soon after before more diabolical defence allowed Mam and Walsh to slip through for the final tries that ultimately secured a big win for the now high-flying Broncos.

Mam's second try came on the back of a woefully staggered kick chase as Jake Granville and Nanai got ahead of their teammates. Walsh skipped around them as if they weren't even there, then put Arthars into space who cut in-field to send Mam away to score.

The last try saw a simple one-on-one miss from Nanai on Herbie Farnworth, not helped by Jason Taumalolo missing his assignment, with Walsh scoring under the posts.

Round 3

North Queensland Cowboys 12 defeated by New Zealand Warriors 26

The Warriors' scoring kicked into gear with Fonua-Blake breaking his way through the middle, just to the right. He left Chad Townsend in his wake before offloading to Egan who contorted himself to score. Not a disaster, but still, poor defence.

The second try is reminiscent of plenty the Cowboys have conceded this year. Despite having four defenders down a narrow short side, Egan darted out of dummy half and poor decision-making again impacted the Cowboys.

Nanai was slow out of marker to shut down Egan, and Townsend raced up on a decoy runner (Mitch Barnett) despite having two better-positioned defenders on his inside to handle both the decoy and Egan.

That allowed Te Maire Martin to skip to the outside, and with Gehamat Shibasaki (who had replaced Peta Hiku) lost as to where he was supposed to be. Kyle Feldt ultimately ended up in a no-win situation which had turned from 3-on-4 to 3-on-1. Montoya, it goes without saying, scored in the corner. Even with a poor final pass as Feldt tried to close on the situation, Montoya scored easily.

Jazz Tevaga then scored up the middle third with some slow-moving cover defence, before the left edge was exposed for the second time in the season as Adam Pompey barrelled over four defenders and offloads for Ed Kosi who scored in the corner.

The final try should never have been allowed from the position the Warriors were in. A four-on-four position from the play the ball saw a decoy slow the slide left of Nanai and Chester, but both Shibasaki and Feldt were a step slow in responding regardless.

Feldt, well in from the touchline even as Te Maire Martin skipped to the outside, was ultimately caught well inside Montoya when he received the ball, and was unable to stop the Warriors' winger from his second try of the afternoon.

Round 4

North Queensland Cowboys 24 defeat Gold Coast Titans 12

By the time Round 4 rolled around, it was becoming clear which way teams needed to attack the Cowboys, and the Titans, while unsuccessful in winning, were successful in breaking down the home side's right edge again as Alofiana Khan-Pererira crossed for a double.

The first of those two tries was a simple shift to the left that saw Nanai again make a play on a decoy runner (Moeaki Fotuaika), while Kieran Foran was able to put himself in space. Again, the slowness of Townsend, Shibasaki and Feldt on the back of Nanai's decision came to the fore here with space and time available to the Titans' backs.

The blunt refusal to slide wide - something that is increasingly evident in the Cowboys' game - ultimately saw Feldt change from the corner and tackle Fifita with Shibasaki no chance of getting there.

That meant Khan-Pereira had an open path to the tryline, and the rest is history.

The second try was created off a Tino Fa'asuamaleaui offload, with Nanai and Townsend unable to wrap the ball up in a two-man tackle. Again, it was a lack of pace from Feldt though, who was a step slow in taking off, that allowed Fifita's ball to put Khan-Pereira away down the sideline and score in the corner yet again.

Nanai has one of the worst tackle efficiencies in the NRL for second-rowers, but it shouldn't have cost the Cowboys here - only that it did with Feldt unable to take off.

The Cowboys won the game, but more chinks in the armour of a right-side defence that simply was being outplayed week after week.

Round 5

Canterbury Bulldogs 15 defeat North Queensland Cowboys 14

Importantly, Jeremiah Nanai missed this game, however, the Bulldogs still scored all three tries down the same edge in miserable conditions at Homebush.

It's hard to imagine a side could be burnt for numbers or caught out with a man advantage, but again, a lack of speed on the right-hand defensive edge saw Jacob Preston score off a Matt Burton grubber to open the account for Canterbury. Townsend and Hiku had rushed out of the line, and simply couldn't turn to match the boom rookie.

The next try, still on that edge, wasn't overly flashy, and it wasn't a result of horrible defence, with Preston barging over off a Reed Mahoney ball out of dummy half.

The biggest problem for the Cowboys was the lack of support play, with Townsend, Hiku and Robson all in the vicinity, but not able to lay a hand on Preston to help an out-muscled Griffin Neame.

The final try saw poor decision-making from the Cowboys as the ball went through the hands of the Bulldogs. In a theme that repeats itself, and raises questions over the coaching, Kyle Feldt is well in from the sideline with a compressed defensive line unable to stop Josh Addo-Carr in the corner, the speed to cover is simply not there.

A lack of trust from Feldt in his inside men, in this instance Hiku and Townsend, to get the job done, is clear and ultimately cost the Cowboys, with the Bulldogs going on to win in golden point.

Round 6

North Queensland Cowboys 22 defeated by The Dolphins 32

With Nanai still missing, the Cowboys took on the Dolphins, conceding points like they were going out of style in the first half.

In a rare change, the Dolphins attacked everywhere apart from the Cowboys' vulnerable right edge defence, with two tries through the middle (to Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Tom Gilbert), and four on the right (left side defence) (three to Jamayne Isaako and one for Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow.)

The first of the Hammer's tries could however be attributed to the right-hand side defence with failures to shut things down ultimately leading to Tabuai-Fidow scoring.

It was simply sloppy with Kenneath Bromwich offloading out of a two-man tackle to Kodi Nikorima, who got away from a lazy tackle attempt from Hiku, and ultimately found Tabuai-Fidow who burnt the defence to score.

Round 7

New Zealand Warriors 22 defeat North Queensland Cowboys 14

The Cowboys' second game against the Warriors got underway with Addin Fonua-Blake scoring just minutes into the contest. Things were set up from the left attacking side, with a short ball from Dylan Walker sending the prop over.

The second try was scratchy for the Auckland-based outfit, but Nanai rushing up but missing his assignment - a familiar theme before he missed two games, and continuing after his return - allowed Tohu Harris to offload out the back. Nanai rushing up drags Townsend in-field and leaves a yawning gap with just Feldt and Hiku out wide. By the time Harris meets Townsend, who covers for Nanai, Hiku has already left his position.

If the ball goes to hand, things are a lot easier, but in the end, even a fumble couldn't help the Cowboys. Dylan Walker recovers, finds Montoya, and he beats Feldt who has now rushed in off his wing. Cover defence leaves a gaping hole for Montoya, who then finds Edward Kosi after beating Drinkwater and Feldt again who had covered, with Kosi scoring.

Josh Curran scores the next try on the right-hand side, with the Warriors' final try coming off a grubber kick that was deflected back to Johnson and ultimately saw Walker run straight between Hiku and Townsend to score, with the two defenders struggling to close a gap or make decent contact on the Warriors' utility.

Round 8

North Queensland Cowboys 18 defeat Newcastle Knights 16

Round 8 saw the Cowboys pick up a tight win over the Knights, with two of the three tries conceded coming on the weak side of the field.

Just minutes after the Cowboys scored for the first time, the Knights would recreate a play the Cowboys had conceded against so many times already this season, looking more like a training run, yet again.

Despite not missing an assignment on Daniel Saifiti who ran a decoy, the Cowboys still found themselves far too infield and compressed as a defensive line. The refusal to slide from Townsend and Nanai left Hiku to come racing in on Miller, with Nanai and Townsend then both committing on both Gamble and Lachlan Fitzgibbon once they got to the line, but were unable to adapt.

Instead of sliding to cover the space, Feldt then (from a 2-on-1 position) rushed in on Bradman Best (marked with a number two in the screenshot), who found Greg Marzhew (number one) on the wing and he scored almost untouched as Townsend attempted to cover.

Dominic Young would be the next to score on the right-hand side for the Knights against a 12-man Cowboys.

The Cowboys were still down to 12 men when a pinball on the right-hand side would see the Knights seemingly lost as Jackson Hastings drifted across the line. Ultimately, he sent Fitzgibbon back underneath who went straight through a 1-on-1 miss from Nanai to score with ease. Chad Townsend also found himself out of position for this try, opening enough of a gap for Fitzgibbon to put Nanai under pressure.

Again, poor communication, poor spacing and Townsend simply not being fast enough off the mark to adapt allowing an easy try.

Round 9

Cronulla Sharks 44 defeat North Queensland Cowboys 6

In the Cowboys' worst defeat of the year, things got underway early with Siosifa Talakai crossing early against back-pedalling and slow-to-react defence in a play off the scrum.

Chad Townsend moves forward to commit on Nicho Hynes, but again unsure of himself, he stops and then backpedals. That allowed Hynes to skip to his outside, which, in turn, dragged Hiku in who opened the gap for an easy pass to Talakai who burst through to score with Feldt also slow to react.

The next two tries came down the right-hand attacking side to Jesse Ramien and Sione Katoa, before action made its way back to North Queensland's weaker defensive side.

On a long sweep to the left shortly after halftime, the Cowboys found themselves unable to slide again and shot for numbers after Nanai charged out of the line at Matt Moylan. Hiku then made the same decision, leaving, again Feldt to deal with a 2-on-1 and only scrambling cover defence coming across in support.

Again, it's a severe lack of communication and defensive trust, with two rushing in, one staying back and only cover defence any chance of recovering the situation.

If it was easy for the Sharks against 13, then it was going to be simple as you like against 12, with Coen Hess in the sin bin, and again, Jeremiah Nanai being out of position had plenty to do with it. His attempt at a late closure of a gap on Hynes left players coming in from out wide again, and space in abundance for Talakai to flick the ball on for Mulitalo to score again.

Nicho Hynes would then score off a dropped ball from Drinkwater as he attempted to collect a chip over the top, before, with Nanai in the sin bin, Teig Wilton ran onto a short ball from Matt Moylan to charge through a couple of lazy attempts at tackles to score.

I'm not going to sit here and claim to have all the answers for the Cowboys, but according to Stats Insider (numbers differ slightly from here to there as we are looking at responsibility rather than final location), no team is conceding a greater percentage of tries on their right defensive edge. That is incredibly concerning when you couple it with exactly how bad North Queensland's overall defensive record is.

There are evidently both personnel (speed, age, tackling ability) issues, and structural (trust in decision-making, positioning, numbers and spacing on the park) issues for Payten's side, with coaching playing a part as much as anything else.

The concerning thing, once you run the rule over every try, is that not that many have been created by amazing moments of rugby league - a lot of the tries conceded could easily be classified as training gallops for opposition sides, something that simply isn't good enough for the Cowboys.

The next four weeks sans Nanai will be intriguing to see if things can turn a corner, but there is little doubt the Cowboys need things to change defensively if they hope to be a threat this season.

No matter how good their attack is, they simply can't score as many points as they are letting in - that said, their attack has been quite poor at times as well.

Things have gone remarkably pear-shaped for Todd Payten's side, and when all the factors are considered, it's not hard to see why.

All screenshots captured from NRL.com match highlights.


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