Will Evans’ series of 2017 NRL club previews appeared in the summer special of Rugby League Review magazine.
After their euphoric grand final triumph in 2015, the Cowboys seemed as well placed as any defending champion to break the two-decade premiers curse and go back-to-back.
They retained their entire grand final 17 – a rarity for any club, let alone a grand final-winning side – and looked like the benchmark for most of 2016, particularly when playing at home. But the post-Origin period sparked a mini-slump, costing the Cowboys a shot at a top-two finish and home final, and they eventually ran out of steam in the preliminary final, pumped 32-20 by Cronulla.
The player drain that affects most premiers is slowly starting to take hold, with Test prop James Tamou heading to Penrith, fellow front-row Ben Hannant retiring, and valuable utility Rory Kostjasyn snapped up by the Knights.
Extending the contracts of Lachlan Coote, Justin O’Neill, Ethan Lowe, Antonio Winterstein and Kane Linnett also cost the Cowboys boom teenager Kalyn Ponga, who will depart at the end of 2017.
Ben Hampton is a good signing, and should fulfil the utility role vacated by Kostjasyn, while also providing excellent cover at fullback, half and hooker – but their lack of depth up front is a real concern.
Coach Paul Green will be looking to the likes of Sam Hoare, Patrick Kaufusi, Coen Hess and Ben Spina to step up and play a bigger role in North Queensland’s campaign.
But a side led by Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott, and containing Jason Taumalolo, Michael Morgan, Gavin Cooper, Coote and O’Neill, is always going to be in the mix. The Cowboys weren’t far off the mark in 2016, and without the burden of the ‘premiers’ tag, they should be among the front-runners again next year if they can get a bit of luck to go their way.
BEST RECRUIT: Ben Hampton is the Cowboys’ only recruit of note, but the versatile livewire shapes as an ideal replacement for Newcastle-bound utility Rory Kostjasyn. A member of Melbourne’s grand final 17, Hampton is adept at fullback, hooker and in the halves.
The North Queensland Cowboys have announced the signing of Melbourne Storm utility Ben Hampton on a three-year deal. https://t.co/BRpo2QhkYf
— NRL Gossip (@NRLGossip) October 28, 2016
STRENGTH: An anomaly amongst recent premiers, the Cowboys will still have all but three of their 2015 grand final 17 at the club next season – including the world’s premier player and a further eight Test and Origin players, including arguably the game’s best forward. Their defence improved last year and they know what it takes to go all the way.
WEAKNESS: The Origin drain is becoming an increasing issue for the Cowboys, suffering a July-August slump thanks to having Thurston, Scott, Tamou, Morgan, Cooper and O’Neill lumbered with rep duties. The front-row looms as a problem spot next season with Tamou and Hannant moving on.
KEY MAN: Thurston has been the most crucial element to the Cowboys fortunes from the day he arrived in 2005, and he will remain so until the day he retires. The four-time Dally M Medal winner is still at the top of his game.
PLAYER TO WATCH: Coen Hess is on the cusp of stardom, despite having played just nine NRL games. Big, physical and fast, Hess is almost certain to forge a permanent first-grade spot in 2017 – and a Queensland Origin call-up isn’t beyond the Bundaberg-born tyro.
— NRL News (@NRLNEWS) December 16, 2016
YOUNG GUN: Just two games into his career – both sudden-death finals matches, no less – Kalyn Ponga is the hottest young property in the NRL. The Cowboys have lost him beyond next season, but they would be cutting off their nose to spite their face if they were to keep him in the lower grades throughout 2017.
UNDER PRESSURE: Grand final hero Kyle Feldt has proven himself at the top level, but he is by no means expendable – particularly with a brilliant talent like Ponga gunning for a wing spot. Feldt’s career has been plagued by the odd ill-disciplined or error-riddled performance, arguably costing him a Queensland call-up this year.
NEEDS TO IMPROVE: After his breakout 2015 campaign, hooker Jake Granville was solid this season but had nowhere near the same impact, and was brought off the bench nine times. Boom dummy-half Josh Chudleigh was set to emerge as a genuine challenger to his spot in 2017 before suffering a serious knee injury in pre-season training, but Granville will nevertheless want to rediscover his livewire best.
— NQ Cowboys (@nthqldcowboys) October 13, 2016
THE COACH: With a win percentage of 62.2 in three seasons at the helm, Paul Green has proven himself as one of the game’s top coaches. Turning the Cowboys into one of the NRL’s top defensive units will arguably be his most satisfying 2016 accomplishment.
THE DRAW: The Cowboys have the second-hardest draw in the NRL, playing every one of the fellow 2016 finalists twice except for the Bulldogs. Away games in Darwin (v Eels) and Cairns (v Rabbitohs) ease the travel burden for the competition’s second most disadvantaged club (after the Warriors). They also don’t leave Queensland until Round 7, but three trips to Sydney and another to Melbourne from Round 10-15 will test their mettle. A tough run home sees them play away to the Roosters, Panthers and Tigers, and host the Storm, Sharks and Broncos in the last six rounds.
LAST FIVE COACHES:
Paul Green (2014-current)
Neil Henry (2009-current)
Ian Millward (2008)
Graham Murray (2002-08)
Murray Hurst (2001-02)
BEST LINE-UP IN 2017
1 Lachlan Coote
2 Antonio Winterstein
3 Justin O’Neill
4 Kane Linnett
5 Kyle Feldt
6 Michael Morgan
7 Johnathan Thurston
8 Matt Scott
9 Jake Granville
10 Scott Bolton
11 Gavin Cooper
12 Ethan Lowe
13 Jason Taumalolo
14 Ray Thompson
15 Coen Hess
16 Ben Hannant
17 John Asiata
— NQ Cowboys (@nthqldcowboys) December 9, 2016