After narrowly missing out on a miracle Premiership in 2017, it was fair to say the following season missed the mark for the North Queensland Cowboys in a big, big way. The wily addition of Kangaroos prop Jordan McLean and the injury comebacks of some blokes called Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott had all and sundry tipping another big year for my boys from the North.
A combination of a very clunky attack, uncharacteristic defensive mistakes and running into god damn goalposts saw those tips of a dream farewell for JT turned into a nightmare before you could shout ‘yeehaa’. Were the players reading into their own hype? Did the team have to readjust too much to fit those big guns back in the side? Did the grand final run of 2017 take too much gas out of ageing legs? It was the first time since 2010 that this club did not feature beyond the regular season, and for a team that has become accustomed to success in recent years it simply wasn’t good enough and the questions were flying like Feldt from all directions. In all, it seems that the Cowboys simply panicked after a slow start to the year and the harder they tried, the worse it seemed to get.
The season came to a close with some rare highlights: a last-gasp comeback win over little brother Brisbane (where have we seen that before?), a demolition of fellow disappointments the Eels and the emotional victory over the Titans in JT’s last game giving fans more than a flicker of hope for the year ahead. Perhaps the biggest and most unlikely highlight, however, came in the 70th minute of that final game of the season, when veteran second-rower Gavin Cooper plucked a JT chip from the air and crashed over to score for the 9th game in a row, breaking a 100-year record for the most consecutive tries scored by a forward in first grade rugby league. What. A. Moment! Long may the streak continue!
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Looking ahead, Paul Green’s men have already begun setting the tone for a big 2019 – clearing the decks in the offseason and bringing on board some shrewd acquisitions that are sure to freshen the tropical Townsville air around the club. With a massive emotional weight lifted after the retirement of Thurston, this team suddenly belongs well and truly to two players: Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo. The same lethal combination that led the side from the front on that 2017 run now has that opportunity again, ably assisted by a revamped backline and what is still considered one of the strongest forward packs in the competition. In a sign that the team may have been taking it too easy during that run of success, they’ve quietly been embarking on their ‘earliest and most gruelling pre-season ever’, everyone is ‘training the house down’ and the new boys are settling in tremendously. You know, the same stuff every other coach is telling the media, but there are some good signs here.
From a SuperCoach perspective, sprinkled in amongst this 2019 roster are some genuine cheapie prospects, fallen guns and definite sleepers that all players should be keeping a keen eye on. In short, my SuperCoach side has a fever…and the only prescription, is more Cowbellboys!
Let’s get started with the basics!
2019 GAINS & LOSSES
Gains: Nene McDonald (St George/Illawarra), Josh McGuire, Tom Opacic (Brisbane), Kurt Baptiste (Canberra), Ben Barba (St Helens), Dan Russell (Souths/Logan)
Losses: Johnathan Thurston, Antonio Winterstein (Retired), Lachlan Coote, Kane Linnett (Super League), Josh Chudleigh, Sam Hoare, Shaun Hudson, Kyle Laybutt (Released), Shaun Fensom (Brisbane)
The backline of the Cowboys has a need for speed and the signings of Barba and McDonald will go a long way to deliver it. While tough from a fans’ perspective to see another three members of the 2015 Grand Final side depart, there can be no question that such a drastic change was needed to spark some life at the back. From seemingly out of nowhere in the offseason, Josh McGuire has made the move north and will join a forward rotation already filled with representative guns. It’s a move that has many questioning the future of veteran Matt Scott in the side as injuries sadly catch up with him.
LIKELY STARTING 17
1 Ben Barba 2. Nene McDonald 3. Ben Hampton 4. Enari Tuala 5. Kyle Feldt 6. Te Maire Martin 7. Michael Morgan 8. Jordan McLean 9. Jake Granville 10. Josh McGuire 11. Gavin Cooper 12. Coen Hess 13. Jason Taumalolo 14. Kurt Baptiste 15. Matt Scott 16. Scott Bolton 17. John Asiata
Other squad members: Carlin Anderson, Logan Bayliss-Brow, Javid Bowen, Jake Clifford, Reuben Cotter, Mitchell Dunn, Tom Gilbert, Corey Jensen, Ethan Lowe, Francis Molo, Gideon Gela-Mosby, Justin O’Neill, Tom Opacic, Emry Pere, Dan Russell, Murray Taulagi, Kurt Wiltshire, Shane Wright
This is the hardest season in a long time to lock down a predicted side. There are a heap of players jostling for spots in the centres, a tough call to be made between who wears the 6 and 14 shirts, and the addition of McGuire to a strong forward pack. All this combines to make it very tough for the likes of first-grade regulars Justin O’Neill, Javid Bowen, Ethan Lowe and Corey Jensen to snag a spot. The centres especially seem to be a wide open affair, with Gideon Gela-Mosby closing the 2018 season out in the backline between centre and wing (pushing Tuala to QLD Cup). He’s yet another option to add to the mix, but there are question marks over his defensive game which might lead to a Hampton/Tuala combination who have the points on him there. Green has shown a reluctance in the past to go too fast in changing up the side and plays it a little safe, but with the disappointment of 2018 still fresh, it might mean the likes of O’Neill don’t make the early cut. Questions that unfortunately won’t have definitive answers until Tuesday the 12th of March!
As always, the trials will be a great guide to see exactly the combinations Paul Green is looking at and how these may gel.
Teams they play twice: Dragons, Broncos, Sharks, Raiders, Storm, Bulldogs, Titans, Rabbitohs, Wests Tigers
Teams they play once: Warriors, Eels, Sea Eagles, Roosters, Knights, Panthers
Bye Week: Round 16
The Cows have a great run of 5 Queensland games to open the season, and crucially will play the first bye round of the year in Round 12. While those run of early home games looks great, the hardest part about March/April in Townsville is working out just what the weather will do. It’s going to be hot, it’s going to be humid, but whether or not it buckets down or the game itself gets put at risk because of a tropical cyclone is the real question mark! There’s some tough defensive sides in here early on which may steer you away from some of the Cows’ attacking weapons until they begin to click.
Jason Taumalolo (Price: $657.4k, Position: 2RF, 2018 Average: 70)
Lolo had his doubters leading up to the 2018 season, where the arrival of Jordan McLean and return of Matt Scott was expected to eat into his minutes, points and therefore overall value. While he never reached the lofty heights of his 2017 average of 75PPG which coincided with his Dally M win, his minutes actually increased to 64MPG (62MPG) and he still hit a premium 70PPG average to close out the year. His base stats remained terrific and top of the tree at an incredible 66BPPG – 31PPG from hitups alone (a huge 87% of these hitups are over 8 metres), combining this with the most tackle busts per game of any forward in the competition at around 2.5. The addition of Josh McGuire to the pack this year is offset by the expected dwindling of Matt Scott’s minutes, and Lolo’s role is too crucial to be tinkered with either way, so I don’t expect much of an impact here.
With a pricetag that looks about as much as his annual grocery bill at a touch over $657k, he’ll chew up a fair bit of your precious cap space early in the season. But, in a game where consistency can sometimes be few and far between, is there too high a price to pay for the highest base point scorer in the competition? I’m honestly not sure if I’d rather be a non-owner or be standing in the defensive line when watching this guy with a full head of steam. What’s more, he’s a Tongan international who will play the Round 12 bye week. A definite headache-easer when thinking of locking in your premium second rowers when you look at the Origin forwards around him at that price (Jurbo, Angus, Fifita, Arrow and Papalii).
Speaking of a head full of steam, an interesting read in Johnathan Thurston’s autobiography over the Summer made mention of the way JT was able to get into Lolo’s ear towards the end of the 2017 season and fire the normally gentle giant up for some mammoth performances. JWH will still be regretting the day he brought Lolo’s name up before the preliminary final as it was this news article that inspired Taumalolo onto one of his most devastating performances to see the Cowboys into the Grand Final. With these well-crafted psychiatry skills being put to full-time use during the year (he’s called ‘Dr. Johnathan Thurston’ for a reason), Taumalolo will be on the charge and simply won’t want a repeat of the frustrating year that was 2018. Look out!
Michael Morgan (Price: $409.2k, Position: HFB/FE, 2018 Average: 44)
Stilesy has written a great pre-season article on Michael “White Lightning” Morgan as part of our Player of Interest series. Check it out here!
Morgo, along with the Cowboys, had a Season 2018 to forget, bowing out early with injury after knocking together an average of just 44 from 11 games, a far cry from his 2017 average of 59 (would have been plenty more if finals were included!). This has seen him drop to the thoroughly mid-range price of $409,200, which is a huge $110k discount on his previous highest, and it belies his status as one of the game’s best halves when he is on. Crucially, he offers a dual-position HFB/FE option like the man whose shoes he hopes to fill: JT.
The loss of Thurston to the Cowboys lineup will pose a great challenge to the side, but also a massive opportunity for the 27-year-old. It’s a challenge he’s taken on before and aced, with a 67PPG average when Thurston was out injured in 2017. Make no mistake, the direction of the Cowboys attack will be the responsibility of this man, with Te Maire Martin and Jake Clifford battling it out for the 5/8 spot in the pre-season but likely to play the role of Robin to Morgo’s Batman. Martin may just have his nose in front going by the latest from Paul Green and it looks likely he and Morgan will resume their 2017 combination. New recruit Ben Barba is expected to take some time settling in but will add another dimension out the back for Morgan to work with.
In simple terms, Thurston’s departure will translate to Morgan getting his hands on the ball far more often than in 2018, and will be putting his underrated kicking game to good use with the loss of left-footer Lachlan Coote from the back to help out. The Cowboys attack looked clunky and predictable last year, and a reinvigorated backline and refreshed Morgan might be the catalyst needed to spark this team to life.
If you’re still asking yourself if Morgan is worth it, go back and watch his run through the 2017 finals series. It might quickly settle any debate over whether this man is worth his $410k price tag, which equates to 28th most expensive overall amongst 5/8s and halfbacks. Unders, unders, unders.
Ben Hampton (Price: $360.3k, Position: CTW/FLB, 2018 Average: 39)
Ben Hampton looks set to lock down a spot in the centres for round 1, and with this comes a very interesting dual-position prospect for SuperCoaches. His price has come way down from a peak of $473k at the start of 2018 (when he was playing starting fullback and then centre), due to being shuffled around mid-year to the bench hooker role which saw his output drop off sharply. In his 7 games at centre during the season, he averaged a strong 56PPG. He then closed out the year with scores of 100 and 75 in the fullback position as the Cowboys attack finally clicked, of which his running game played a big part. He proved his worth to the side with some great pace out wide which the Cowboys were sorely lacking for most of the year. He starts at that tricky mid-range price but with a 17-point gap between his positional average at centre and starting price, he should offer some sneaky early season value. The recent word out of Townsville is that Kurt Baptiste will don the 14 jersey this year, with Hampton training at the back over the Summer. Good news for his prospects of being used as something other than a pure utility for the first time in his career.
Kyle Feldt (Price: $457.7k, Position: CTW, 2018 Average: 49)
Kyle Feldt has never really been a SuperCoach prospect with a workrate that just doesn’t match it with the top-end of his peers (ranked 41st for BPPG in the CTW position and 25th for the all-important tackle busts stat). His ability to finish off a try on the wing is up there with the best, though, and with the speed and skill of Hampton playing to his left, he looks like showing off his skills plenty more in season 2019. What will really interest SuperCoaches, and what might take him to the next level beyond his usual 40-50PPG average, is the fact that the Cowboys have lost their chief goalkicking option in Johnathan Thurston, and previous backup Ethan Lowe is unlikely to make the 17. This leaves the race for the goalkicking spot wide open, and it will likely come down to two options: Sharpshooter Jake Clifford and Kyle Feldt. With the word around in the pre-season that Te Maire Martin is edging Clifford for the 5/8 jersey, this might mean that Feldt suddenly adds another string to his SuperCoach bow. And another option to your CTW plans.
Mitchell Dunn (Price: $209.6k, Position: 2RF, 2018 Average: 32)
A left-field cheapie, Dunn played just the two games in 2018 from the bench but it was enough to catch my eye and have him earmarked as a definite SuperCoach option if he gets a callup this season. He tips the scales at 100kgs and plays second row, but was brought up through the Cowboys NYC system as a five-eighth which gives him the kind of flair and motor we love to see. He possesses a lethal offload which I hope doesn’t get coached out of him as it will become a real weapon for this kid down the track. The Cowboys have plenty of depth in the forwards this season but should injuries and representative duties rear their heads again, Dunn will be one of the first in line for a spot. Keep your eye out.
Ben Barba (Price: $467.3k, Position: FLB, 2018 Average: N/A)
After spending two years out of the NRL, there’s no doubting it’s going to be tough for Ben Barba to make it back to the form that helped take Cronulla to a maiden premiership win in 2016. He was brilliant in the Super League, mixing speed with guile on his way to 23 tries, taking out the 2018 Man of Steel (the UK’s version of the Dally M medal) and taking St Helens to the finals with a remarkable 21-2 record. But, as we’ve seen from countless Super League backs trying their hand at the NRL, the step up (or in this case, step back) can be a massive one. Sam Tomkins immediately springs to mind here. The gaps close quicker, the tackles stick better and the pressure at the back is greater.
For Barba, the strongest part about his game, his running, suddenly becomes something new to the Cowboys side that has previously been serviced by the reliable, if predictable, Lachlan Coote. Coote’s attributes were a left-footed kicking game and a linking role in the Cowboys sweeping attacking plays. He would rarely, if ever, break the line or a tackle, because that just wasn’t part of his game. A player like Barba at the back will be a completely new dynamic for the Cows, and it would be a little crazy to expect this to click immediately with the returning Morgan now steering the side around. As a Cowboys fan, I’m excited to see the shape that our attack forms and what Paul Green wants Barba to do as part of that. As a SuperCoach player, I’m wary that these sorts of things take time to turn into points, and it’s time that you just don’t have.
The fullback position is likely to be taken up by two of the usual suspects anyway, so Barba remains an early season watch at best.
Josh McGuire (Price: $473.6k, Position: 2RF/FRF, 2018 Average: 51)
Another off-season recruit by the Cowboys, McGuire looks likely to edge out veteran Matt Scott for a starting front row spot, but will find it tough to come close to his 2018 MPG of 66 (which were already way above his usual range between 55-60). However, he starts the year off at a reasonably low $474k, due to his unusually low 2018 season average of 51 points. This was partially due to the fact that he was shuffled around between the front row and hooker spot on several occasions throughout the season which wrecked his base output.
It’s a tricky price for Round 1, though, and he comes with a number of drawbacks that make him a tough sell. He’s joining a Cowboys lineup that is already stacked with representative forwards, he’ll likely suit up for the Maroons during Origin and miss the crucial R12 bye week, and there are plenty of question marks about the rotation of minutes amongst the forwards. Outside of being at a new club and wanting to prove himself here, there’s not really that much to McGuire that suggests he will go back and become the 60PPG forward that you start your year off with before upgrading to a gun. Dual position flexibility helps his case, but when you start stacking him up against some of the forward options around the competition, it’s easy to see why he might be left on the SuperCoach scrapheap.
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