This NRL season has had more surprises than a night out with Blake Ferguson. On-field brilliance, off-field embarrassments, score-line blowouts, Sonny-Bill is back, Benji Marshall is going, players urinating on themselves, Mitchell Pearce still being picked for NSW, teams punching above their weight, and of course all three teams north of the border resembling Queensland Cup sides.
For the life of me, I cannot figure out why the last point surprises anyone.
If you look at the Brisbane Broncos roster you could be forgiven for thinking they are a top 8 side, however if you look at their players in the 1, 6, 7 and 9 positions it all makes sense. Even after Ashton Agar’s dip in form, he would be a better five-eighth than Scott Prince. Peter Wallace has always been second fiddle during his career to a more dominant halves partner, while Cory Norman is already thinking about Parramatta. McCullough is an exception as he is young and has great potential, but his coach sparingly uses him during matches to give the uninspiring Ben Hunt game time. McCullough will not improve if this keeps happening.
But this is not about the Broncos, this is about the North Queensland Cowboys.
Can someone please tell me WHY the Cowboys were marked by a majority of pundits at the start of the season to be a top 4 side? Their position on the table slightly surprises me, but when you break them down, it shouldn’t.
Their roster is average, lacks depth and Jonathon Thurston aside has no spark, no x-factor. While you could argue 3 or 4 seasons ago Matt Bowen provided that X-factor, it is clear that injuries and age have got the better of him in recent times.
So back to the ever-reliable 1, 6, 7 & 9 team test. The Cowboys have used various players across all of these positions this season, some names include Thurston, Bowen, Thompson, Kostijasyn, Lui, Morgan, Greenshields, and Mitchell. If you take Thurston out of this equation (and we have already discussed Bowen), this group lacks experience, guile, creativity and talent. Not to mention a majority hadn’t heard of three of these players until this season.
A Rugby League team cannot rely on one player to facilitate all the points during a game, it renders their attack one-dimensional. Consequently it becomes significantly easier for opposition teams to defend against. The Cowboys are currently ranked 12th in the NRL for points for, why? They always look to Thurston when trying to score points. Couple that with Thurston’s unusual slow start to the season and you have a disaster in the making.
It’s not all doom gloom for the Cowboys roster, although only in one other position.
The North Queensland franchise posses the two Australian front-rowers in Matt Scott and James Tamou, both are wonderful players. They are gutsy, big, generate impressive go-forward and lay a great foundation for the rest of the team. However, they are not the ones that score points. They can run their backsides off, offload in the middle, carry 3 or 4 defenders with them on every surge forward, but if the players on the fringes and out wide aren’t taking advantage of this, they will not win football games. It is that simple.
It is safe to say that the Cowboys back-row is experienced; Cooper, Johnson, Hall, Bolton & Tariq Sims. Experience can only get you so far and those names hardly strike fear into opposition teams. Tariq Sims has struggled to regain the confidence he oozed two seasons ago and after suffering two broken legs it is easy to understand why. Sim’s aside, his back-row partners would struggle to make it into other NRL sides.
Another facet that is also unfortunate for the Cowboys is they have uninspiring outside backs. While Brent Tate is a reliable player that has represented his state and country numerous times, he is no longer a top 50 player in the NRL; Tate’s 5 tries this season is evidence of that. Winterstein has taken advantage of the opportunities that have been created grabbing 11 tries thus far in 2013, but before arriving in Townsville Winterstein was unwanted by two other clubs. Kane Linnett has shown potential but is only 24, while Ashley Graham has a world of experience but is hardly a player that will set the world alight. They are all consistent players, but with the level of competition in the NRL, a team needs one or two outstanding players in these positions to have any chance of being premiership threat.
While you could argue that the Rabbitohs only house one or two world-class players, the fact is the rest of the team play above average football. They have a great mix of age, experience, size, consistency, aggression and magic. Lets face it, any team with Greg Inglis has x-factor and is going to be a top 4 side, but they also have a wonderful (and young) half-back, an experienced five-eighth, a veteran finisher on the wing, consistent centres, a huge front row, and a young dynamic back-row.
The mix at the Cowboys – in my opinion – is wrong. To many below average experienced players, not enough youthful stars that posses the x-factor. They don’t have a player that will make 50 tackles a game and still be effective in attack, or someone who can score an amazing 100m try from nothing. They lack big hitters that opposition players try and avoid at all costs, or the young 20-something year old that creates envy amongst other clubs. They do not have one player that constantly terrorises opponents with their complete repertoire of speed, skill, finishing ability and bone rattling defence.
While any team would be much better off with Jonathon Thurston, James Tamou and Matt Scott, the problem for the Cowboys is the gulf in quality between these players and the rest of the team too great. And if you crunch the numbers, it is easy to see how the Cowboys are a below average side.