NRL Rd 25 - Cowboys v Panthers
TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - SEPTEMBER 03: Jeremiah Nanai of the Cowboys smiles after winning the round 25 NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Penrith Panthers at Qld Country Bank Stadium, on September 03, 2022, in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

The Cowboys seemed to make a personal mission out of proving everyone wrong in 2022. Wooden spoon favourites in the pre-season, they ultimately wound up hosting a preliminary final.

Todd Payten took home Coach of the Year honours on the back of a brilliant season. All of his recruits played well beyond expectation.

Jeremiah Nanai stormed onto the scene and joined his coach on stage as Rookie of the Year. Tom Dearden and Chad Townsend both enjoyed career resurgences.

Valentine Holmes shifted from fullback into the centres and became an Origin and World Cup winner in yet another position. This was just further proof that everything that the Cowboys touched in 2022 turned to gold, and they will now be looking to repeat the dose in 2023.

Recruitment report

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: Daejarn Asi (Parramatta Eels), Ben Condon (Manly Sea Eagles), Tom Gilbert (The Dolphins), Connelly Lemuelu (The Dolphins), Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow (The Dolphins)

SYDNEY, AUSTRALIA - APRIL 09: James Tamou of the Cowboys runs the ball
during the round six NRL match between the Penrith Panthers and the North Queensland Cowboys at Pepper Stadium on April 9, 2016 in Sydney, Australia. (Photo by Brett Hemmings/Getty Images)

Recruitment impact

Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow and Tom Gilbert will likely start for the Dolphins in Round 1 but otherwise the Cowboys managed to overcome any major losses.

2015 Premiership winner James Tamou returns to the club and will be in contention for a bench spot. Otherwise, this side will be almost identical to the side that lined up in the preliminary final.

Truthfully, given the fact the Cowboys were a converted try away from a grand final, they didn't need a big turnover.

The Hammer leaving hurts the squad's depth but the arrival of Gehamat Shibasaki and promotion of young gun Tom Chester will largely offset the loss.

Key talking points

Can they do it again?
The Cowboys defied all expectations to host a preliminary final in 2022. They made us doubters look stupid, myself having picked the Cowboys to finish last.

As mentioned previously, everything the Cowboys tried last year came off in a big way. They caught everyone off guard and cashed in big time.

The club enters 2023 with very different expectations. A Top Eight finish is the absolute minimum now. With expectation come pressure.

Opposition coaches have had an entire off-season to break down the Cowboys. Todd Payten will be tasked with repeating their 2022 heroics in very different circumstances.

A very settled squad
One through 17 the Cowboys will name a side that is almost identical to their 2022 selves. The only change is the enforced absence of Luciano Leilua.

James Tamou will take Coen Hess's middle spot on the bench as Hess moves into the vacant second row position.

Even the Panthers and Sharks, the two sides who finished above them in 2022, will see faces missing from their 2022 finals sides.

This can only be a positive. Given they finished third and hosted a Prelim they didn't need wholesale changes. A brilliant effort by all involved to keep this side together.

NRL Rd 23 - Eels v Cowboys
GOLD COAST, AUSTRALIA - AUGUST 21: Coen Hess of the Cowboys looks dejected during the round 23 NRL match between the Parramatta Eels and the North Queensland Cowboys at Cbus Super Stadium, on August 21, 2021, in Gold Coast, Australia. (Photo by Chris Hyde/Getty Images)

Origin period lull?
The increased bye schedule will help all sides navigate Origin but Todd Payten proved in 2022 he isn't afraid to rest his Origin stars.

In 2023 the Cowboys are likely to provide a plethora of talents to the interstate series. Murray Taulagi, Tom Dearden, Valentine Holmes, Jeremiah Nanai and Reuben Cotter are certainties if fit.

Throw in 2022 Origin reps Kyle Feldt, Jordan McLean and squad rep Chad Townsend and there is every chance that Cowboys fans will be holding their breathe throughout the Three Games.

Even if the Cowboys reps come through unscathed there is every chance each sits out an extra week with a long-term view. As with '22 they may drop points to keep players with a look to Finals.

Star Player: Valentine Holmes
Truthfully this could be about three of four players but right now it is their megastar centre who stands head and shoulders above the rest.

Holmes enjoyed arguably a career best season in 22 after shifting to the centres. Considering how well he played in 2016 on the wing for the Sharks and again at fullback for Cronulla in 2018, that is saying something.

As well as he played last year, with another pre-season under his belt, I can only see him getting even better.

Holmes ability to hit it up like a forward is invaluable out of his own end. I'd be shocked if he didn't improve significantly on his 10 try tally from last season.

NRL Rd 3 - Cowboys v Titans
TOWNSVILLE, AUSTRALIA - MAY 29: Valentine Holmes of the Cowboys passes the ball during the round three NRL match between the North Queensland Cowboys and the Gold Coast Titans at QCB Stadium on May 29, 2020 in Townsville, Australia. (Photo by Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images)

Player under pressure: Coen Hess
Coen Hess is being called upon to shift from his preferred role in the middle off the bench into a spot in the second row starting side.

Hess absolutely has the talent, and runs on the board to complete the switch, but there is no doubt there is pressure on his shoulders.

Leilua and Nanai were one of the game's elite second row pairings in 2022.

There are no shortage of options on the roster so if Hess doesn't hit the ground running he may lose his starting spot.

Breakout Star: Riley Price
Truthfully I had to reach out to a Cowboy supporting mate as the 1-17 is set in Townsville. Even the squad players are fairly established.

Given what I found re Price, I would be shocked if he doesn't play plenty of first-grade rugby league in 2023.

He was one of the stars for last season's Townsville Blackhawks and looks more than ready to not only step up but make a big impact.

Equally at home in the second row or in the middle, there is a bench spot awaiting in the not too distant future.

2023 Draw impact

Given their closest away fixture is roughly 1,300 kms away, the travel schedule for the Cowboys is always going to be a rough one.

They do avoid the Melbourne Storm away trip however Round 7 will see them travel to Auckland to play the Warriors.

Only twice do they face back-to-back trips but the Cowboys will rack up plenty of frequent flyer points yet again in 2023.

Fixtures to watch

Round 2 vs Brisbane Broncos
This is still the big Queensland clash no matter what Dolphins or Titans fans will have you think.

Suncorp Stadium will host the Friday night blockbuster in front of a surefire full house. These games are always close no matter what the stakes or occasion.

The Cowboys had a much better season than their traditional rivals in 22 and will want to send an early message that it will happen again this year.

NRL Rd 3 - Broncos v Cowboys
BRISBANE, AUSTRALIA - MARCH 27: Jeremiah Nanai of the Cowboys (L) is tackled by Herbie Farnworth of the Broncos during the round three NRL match between the Brisbane Broncos and the North Queensland Cowboys at Suncorp Stadium, on March 27, 2022, in Brisbane, Australia. (Photo by Dan Peled/Getty Images)

Round 10 vs Sydney Roosters
Sure to be the hottest ticket in town, the Cowboys Sunday afternoon clash at Allianz Stadium is one of two monster fixtures across round 10.

Given the Cowboys lofty aspirations, you'd have to imagine they will compete with the Roosters for a Top Four spot. A win here has a four point effect on both sides.

Another game that will be headlined by the battle in the middle, expect plenty of action early in front of a huge crowd. What a test!

Round 13 vs Parramatta Eels

The return match! All the pre-match talk will be an attempt to play it down, at least from players, but you have to believe the Cowboys have this fixture circled.

Having fallen short in the Prelim to the Eels, the Cowboys will head into this contest with just a little more spice.

There are headline personal clashes across the park but nothing will top the battle of two elite forward packs.


Dan Nichols
The Cowboys enjoyed a near flawless 2022. They were one game away from the most unlikely of Grand Finals. The big question is can they do it again in 2023?

Unfortunately for Cowboys fans, the answer is no. Not to say they won't have a brilliant season, but a top four finish will be very tough to replicate.

The Cowboys have one of the best run on 13's across the competition. The bench however sees a huge drop off in quality and will cost them late in the season.


Jack Blyth
The Cowboys are reminiscent of the 2019 Canberra Raiders outfit. It's hard to say either overachieved, however with so many players in career-best form, it's hard for all of them to back it up the next season.

Their draw is a lot tougher than last season as well with a few more road trips, and they'll be hunted by rival clubs instead of being surprised by them.

They're still very much contenders, but expect North Queensland to drop out of the top four, and do it the tough way this season.


Scott Pryde
The Cowboys were oh-so good last year, and they will be sniffing around the edge of the top four yet again for a shot at the double chance come the first week of knockout action.

I think they'll get it toO, finishing fourth before travelling to Sydney.

This is a side with attacking talent and defensive grit, but they do have some questions to answer, namely what they do with their edge forwards early doors.


Zero Tackle calculator: 5th.