Everything based around the Cowboys 2017 season started and ended with JT. Jonathan Thurston’s importance to North Queensland is so fundamental it’s hard to properly explain, even with a loosely-tied together, semi-thought out metaphor.
The Cowboys have stagnated. As everyone drives on, they’re broken down, trying to figure out a few things – namely, their identity. Currently they rank in the bottom-four in multiple major offensive statistics and are struggling to consistently generate any opportunities.
For perspective, the numbers and performance suggest Thurston isn’t just the fuel that powers the team car, he’s also the driver.
His influence is so impactful, his last game he literally steered Queensland to victory with one arm.
But not only is he driving, he’s also navigating. So everyone just hops in and goes for a ride, and suddenly Justin O’Neill and Gavin Cooper are Origin players. Always directing, always in control.
— The NRL Footy Show (@NRLFootyShow) June 29, 2017
Once comfortably riding shotgun, Queensland utility Michael Morgan has now been thrown the keys in JT’s absence. Some view it as a luxury to have another rep half in the fold as cover, but make no mistake — it’s not his car, and he’s still learning how to drive it.
Even though he is miscast as a primary playmaker, Morgan has grown in confidence, and after trouble adjusting, he’s finally begun to lead the team around.
— 7 News Mackay (@7NewsMackay) June 28, 2017
Still, internally the Cowboys know it isn’t enough to contend.
And so, credit to them, they were proactive in hiring injury cover as Thurston started to miss time.
Whilst Te Maire Martin may have been recruited with succession in mind, he now enters the fold in what may end up being the deciding factor as to whether or not the Cowboys’ season is a success.
Warm Welcome. Now, obviously throwing an uninitiated, inexperienced five-eighth in as cover for a generational talent isn’t ideal, but the problem isn’t just the job he has to fill, but again, whether or not he has the skills necessary. As an experiment, take a look at two stat-lines;
(T, AR, ARM, LB, LBA TA, OL, TK, MT, E, K)
Player A — 0.4,10.4, 74.7, 0.4, 0.4, 0.7, 0.5, 13.2, 3, 1.2, 7.6.
Player B — 0.3, 10.1, 71.1, 0.3, 0.4, 0.4, 0.3, 25.6, 2.9, 1.4, 1.
Player B is Te Maire Martin’s brief Penrith tenure. Player A is… Michael Morgan.
What’s striking (aside from Martin, shockingly, having better defensive stats) is how closely their lines match up.
— NQ Cowboys (@nthqldcowboys) June 28, 2017
Already, that should ring alarm bells. This paints the picture of a pair of running five-eighths, which is not ideal; variety is integral in effective pairings — it’s why Thurston and Morgan work great together, or why Cronk and DCE will work when Thurston and DCE didn’t. If Michael Morgan has been ineffective in running the team, what suggests adding another similar contributor will change their fortunes?
Ask the Bulldogs how playing two five-eighths is going…
That’s not to say Martin can’t help, but for him to legitimately help this team moving forward, we would have to see something from him nothing in his career has demonstrated as yet.
Either way, he’s gonna need some help.
— NQ Cowboys (@nthqldcowboys) June 28, 2017
Coen Hess is exciting, but is still restricted to spot minutes off the bench. Their next tier of players are great weapons, but none really move the needle without someone opening the door (Granville, Lowe, Cooper, Bolton, O’Neill).
Lachlan Coote, a competent ball-player for a fullback, is the most natural candidate to step up and carry some of the offensive load. Coote’s production has flatlined again this year, remaining consistent with last season which was way down on his form in 2015, North Queensland’s premiership season. Whilst his running metres have almost halved, his assist numbers have edged up slightly. He’s at his best when he picks his spots, but his team is calling out for a bigger presence around the ruck, and he has the tools to help.
It should also be remembered Matt Scott, arguably the game’s best front-rower and the Cowboys’ co-captain, has been out since Round 2, compounding the off-season departure of fellow Test props James Tamou and Ben Hannant.
Realistically, the Cowboys’ chance to salvage a season slowly slipping away is a shift in identity. They are struggling to generate any second-phase play (3.8 offloads, 16th in the league), but are reasonably effective at punching through the middle — breaking the 4th most tackles (35.9tb), ranking 4th in metres gained (1621), and second in run efficiency. This is the foundation of which their on-the-fly rebuild has to centre around.
In that case, the focus then shifts to their forward pack, and the spotlight shines firmly on Jason Taumololo. For all of the accolades and praise of recent years, Taumololo’s 2017 season is being insanely overlooked.
Remember, he was the joint Dally M Player of the Year in 2016, yet he has somehow improved once again —15 runs, 165 metres and 24 tackles per game last year has upgraded to 19 runs, 210 metres and 29 tackles this season. Simply outstanding production.
Most of all, he is asserting his dominance and making his presence felt, especially when the team needs it most — the hallmark of a superstar. That’s encouraging for the team’s prospects moving forward.
— NQ Cowboys (@nthqldcowboys) June 4, 2017
And maybe that’s the biggest point to take from this. No matter what tactical alterations you make, nothing is going to spring up and replace Thurston’s presence — he is an incredible player, but he is invaluable as a leader.
So no, maybe Morgan can’t drive the car on his own (and Te Maire Martin should be nothing more than an occasional spark), but add Taumalolo powering the engine and a trusted team of veterans constantly spinning the wheels, they might get somewhere.
Of course, considering it’s that much work just to get the car going, it’s nearly impossible seeing them getting close to the finish line in the premiership race – but an honourable top-eight placing remains within their reach, which would be an achievement without the one-and-only Thurston.