Saturday 20 January 2018 / 12:45 AM

NRL 2018 OUTLOOK: NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS

In an injury-ravaged campaign which saw co-captains and representative stalwarts Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott ruled out for the season early, and a plethora of their first-choice team miss significant time, the Cowboys were robbed of reaching their full potential throughout 2017. But after scraping into the playoffs by way of an unlikely Dragons loss in Round 26, the Cowboys proved again why they can never be written off, going on a magical run behind the inspiring lead of Michael Morgan and some of the heartiest displays in recent memory to reach the grand final. With a returning cast of stars and a clean slate of health, how far can North Queensland go in JT’s farewell season?

2017 SNAPSHOT: 8th (13-11); Points For – 467 (10th), Points Against – 443 (5th)

BEST RECRUIT: Rising through the Storm’s ranks and most recently joining the Australian squad for the World Cup, Jordan McLean adds yet another quality forward to an already stellar pack. His numbers may not jump off the page, but the rangy prop is among the best ruck controllers in the league, slowing oppositions down without the ball and always churning out strong carries and quick play the balls with it. A foundation-layer who will do wonders creating time and space for JT and co, and allow Taumalolo to be more selective and therefore more impactful. Huge signing.

KEY MAN: Michael Morgan reached a new plateau in his personal game in the absence of Thurston, becoming the lead playmaker and flashing vision that only stood to improve the more established parts of his game. With JT rejoining the line-up, Morgan can slide back into the secondary playmaker role and run the footy a bit more, but as we saw last season the best version of the Cowboys features Michael Morgan as an all-round contributor.

UNDER THE PUMP: Centres Justin O’Neill and Kane Linnett were outstanding in the 2015 premiership season but failed to maintain that level through their unsuccessful title defence. Their inconsistent form-line followed that of the team at large through 2017, struggling early and coming home strong. O’Neill bounced back well after being dumped from the Queensland team after a disastrous series opener, whilst Linnett took most of the season to find his feet, and his spot in particular will come under fire should he continue the path. With a quality pack leading the way, the veteran centres have to provide stability out wide.

SELECTION POSER: With essentially the entire line-up set in place, the only real battle to start the season will be the final two bench spots, and Paul Green has plenty of options. Te Maire Martin falls out of the starting lineup and could grab the utility spot, but that would have to come at the expense of Ben Hampton who was solid in that role last season. Corey Jensen proved he is ready to contribute as a rotation forward, but faces competition from the skilful John Asiata and veteran workhorse Shaun Fensom. Their terrific depth will cause headaches early but serve them well through the Origin period.

YOUNG GUN: The Hess Express gained plenty of steam through his first full season in the top-grade, exploding off the bench and driving through the heart of tiring defences. Already an Origin representative, at just 21 young Coen has plenty of growth left, especially in the minutes department where he struggled when asked to play in high volume.

BREAKOUT SEASON ALERT: With a team full of established players, finding a true breakout star is tough, but after a tough 2017 behind a depleted pack, expect Jake Granville to get back to his darting best more in line with his 2015 form, capitalising on the space created by their powerful forwards and be the quiet killer for this star-studded outfit.

THE STAT: After comfortably leading the league in running metres in 2015 and 2016, the Cowboys dropped down to fourth in the league, propped up by Jason Taumalolo’s season-long out-of-body experience. Adding McLean and Scott, and with JT back pulling the strings, expect this number to jump right back up, and possibly top their 2015 mark of 40,070m, the highest by any team in the last five years.

COACH’S JOB SECURITY DANGER RATING: Low – One of the finest tactical and motivational coaches with a track record of success, Green’s job is as safe as they come.

THE DRAW: Glass Half Full – After a testing start they get a cushy seven-game stretch that features six non-finals teams in the lead up to Origin. Eighteen of their 24 games are primetime Friday or Saturday night fixtures, and they avoid too many short turnarounds with the least of any team.

Glass Half Empty – A rough start with four straight finals teams from last season to kick off 2018 and a total of seven games against last year’s top four.

POSSIBLE LINE-UP TO START 2018:

1 Lachlan Coote
2 Kyle Feldt
3 Justin O’Neill
4 Kane Linnett
5 Antonio Winterstein
6 Michael Morgan
7 Johnathan Thurston
8 Matt Scott
9 Jake Granville
10 Jordan McLean
11 Gavin Cooper
12 Ethan Lowe
13 Jason Taumalolo

14 Scott Bolton
15 Coen Hess
16 John Asiata
17 Te Maire Martin

WAY-TOO-EARLY FORECAST: Top-four team, genuine premiership contender.

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About the author

Brayden Issa

Brayden is a Sydney-based sports management student and sports fanatic, specialising in rugby league, basketball, football and cricket. He is concerned with everything related to professional sports performance and management.

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