Ask any Cowboys fan at the end of 2021 where they expected to finish in 2022, you’d probably have received very few confident predictions of finals footy.
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They finished 15th with just seven wins and a -288 points differential. Hardly anything to crow about.
The Cowboys were a side that seemed clueless and fairly mis-directed.
Was it a rookie coach out of his depth? Todd Payten certainly didn’t do himself any favours with how he handled superstar lock Jason Taumalolo.
Was it a team still trying to find its identity after Johnathan Thurston? Quite possibly. Legends aren’t easily replaced.
Were they more impacted by Michael Morgan’s forced retirement than they let on? Well, you show me another team that loses their halfback mid-season and still performs well.
In fact, the retirements of Johnathan Thurston and Michael Morgan due to ongoing shoulder injuries had very strong Peter Sterling vibes.
Neither would really be considered Sterling’s equal, however the importance to their sides could not be overstated.
North Queensland’s recruitment for 2022 wasn’t exactly groundbreaking at the time.
The club was laughed at when Chad Townsend was announced. He was seen as a solid hand, capable of guiding around a team of gamebreakers like he had at Cronulla.
Many thought the release of Jake Clifford to Newcastle and the recruitment of Tom Dearden was simply shuffling the deck chairs on the Titanic.
There were also question marks surrounding Jason Taumalolo and whether he was worth the mammoth contract he was still on.
Yet, after 12 rounds the Cowboys have surpassed their 2021 win record, notching eight victories so far this season.
They’re actually only four points or two wins better off than where they were at this time last year. The Cowboys were on 12 points after round 12 in 2021, but then only managed one win for the rest of the season.
When it comes to for and against, the 2021 and 2022 sides are worlds apart.
They possessed a positive differential of 134 points after 12 rounds.
In 2021 that was minus 87.
This is a Cowboys side almost entirely stripped of its 2015 heroes, of its 2017 nearly miracle.
Of the players from those grand final sides, only Kyle Feldt, Jake Granville, Ben Hampton, Coen Hess and Jason Taumalolo are left.
This is a squad looking to forge its own history and legends.
It’s a squad with some journeymen, some talented juniors, hard workers and some exciting match winning players.
Scott Drinkwater, the man once earmarked to fill the purple number one of Billy Slater before a pectoral tear and Ryan Papenhuyzen intervened.
Yet from being the heir apparent in the south of the country, in its far north he has truly begun to show just how good he is.
Dearden, a seemingly talented yet somewhat leaderless half at Brisbane, has grown into the number six once worn by Thurston.
In the seven is a premiership drought breaking Chad Townsend. Deemed surplus to requirements in the shire following the recruitment of Nicho Hynes and with a short sojourn to the Warriors, Townsend has provided the steadying hand needed in an inexperienced spine.
Speaking of the spine, Reece Robson has supplanted Jake Granville who is now joining the fray from the bench where his trademark runs and crafty work around the ruck can catch out tired defenders.
Valentine Holmes, recruited following his failed NFL bid and once thought to be the fullback the Cowboys needed, is now an powerful, ball-running centre whose ball playing skills can be used to great effect on the end of backline sweeps.
The seemingly evergreen Peta Hiku has added further steel to their edge defence.
Their edges were shredded last year, in part due to a conveyor belt of injuries that saw Esan Marsters, Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Justin O’Neill, Ben Hampton, Connelly Lemuelu, Javid Bowen and even Daejarn Asi in the centres.
With more stability comes more consistency and while they went down to the Panthers in round 12, it wasn’t for lack of effort.
The Cowboys absorbed six consecutive sets on their line at one point during the match, showing a defensive steel that’s been missing for quite a while.
Penrith though don’t lose two games in a row, and they don’t lose patience. They ground North Queensland down eventually, but there was plenty in that performance to suggest the Cowboys don’t just turn it on against struggling sides.
Their performances against Melbourne and Parramatta highlighted their ability to challenge and beat good sides.
While doing the little things right is a long held rugby league cliche, the Cowboys could easily have been accused of not doing that last year.
They struggled to get the ball upfield, sitting in 12th with 519.1 metres per game. This year they’re fifth, averaging 576.1 metres.
Last season they completed at a competition third worst 76.6 per cent, this season that has risen to 78.2 per cent, placing them in sixth.
By making more metres and completing sets at a higher rate, they are taking pressure off their defence. Last season they averaged 36.8 missed tackles per game to be second worst, this season they’re averaging 26.9, the best in the competition.
One of the biggest changes to their attack this season has been their better support of the ball carrier.
Last season they provided a support run just 49.5 times per game. The third least in the competition, above only the Raiders and Broncos. This season they are averaging 56.3, placing them in fourth.
Support runs take pressure off the ball carrier as defences can’t load up on a sole runner to target with a gang tackle. Naturally that leads to ball carriers either tipping onto their support runner, or getting between defenders to generate a faster play the ball or gain more metres.
All of those statistics are nice, but it doesn’t pay credit to some of the young guns performing out of their skins this season.
Murray Taulagi, Jeremiah Nanai and Reuben Cotter weren’t considered bona fide NRL players coming into this season. They have all been selected in the Queensland squad for this year’s State of Origin series.
Of the six Cowboys chosen by Billy Slater, only Taulagi and Tabuai-Fidow haven’t been named in what would constitute the game day 18.
Reuben Cotter’s development from fringe hooker to starting Queensland lock is remarkable while Jeremiah Nanai’s ascent to the Maroons bench would have been unheard of at the start of the season.
Normally the Origin bolter is the preserve of New South Wales, but the Cowboys have provided two due to their irresistible form this year.
At the halfway point of the season there is plenty of the NRL race to be run. But this Cowboys side looks set to return to the finals and stay there for the foreseeable future.
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