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REVIEW: 2023 North Queensland Cowboys
It would be too simple to chalk the Cowboys’ purple patch up to Origin outs
If I may be blunt, of the top four NRLM teams in 2022, two were indelibly stamped with POTENTIAL FRAUD status. The first were the 18-6 Cronulla Sharks, who had ridden a relatively soft draw and a scintillating but mercurial offence to a high finish in the standings. The second were the 17-7 North Queensland Cowboys, who had signed Chad Townsend in the off-season and somehow, mysteriously, added ten wins as a result. The Sharks went out in straight sets, first to the Cowboys and then to the Rabbitohs. The Cowboys lost a close preliminary final to the Eels for the right to be meat in the Panthers’ grand final grinder.
Of these two, my gut feel - not backed in any way by statistics or analysis - was that the Sharks were the more likely candidate to receive a visit from the mean regression fairies and that the Cowboys were the more sustainably good team. Ironically, the Eels suffered as much as anyone, following a grand final annihilation with a so-so 12-12 2023 season and a tenth placed finish. The Sharks put together a 14-10 campaign to make the bottom half of the eight and were out after the first week of finals. The North Queensland Cowboys finished 2023 on an even .500, in eleventh place, with a points difference of just +4, a little better than the Sea Eagles and a little worse than the Eels, but otherwise very much not relevant.
The middling results disguises that Cowboys’ season played out in three extremely distinctive phases. The first phase of the Cowboys’ season made up half of the calendar, after which the Cows were 5-8 with a -90 points difference, or lost by an average of -6.9 points per game. Belying the talent available on the roster, the Cowboys looked disorganised as much as anything and lacked any sense of thrust when moving forward with the ball.
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This phase included an inexplicable collapse to the Tigers, going down 66-18, a brooming from the Warriors, a controlled demolition by the Broncos, another by the Sharks, an embarrassing loss at home to the newbie Dolphins, a proforma loss to the Eels, a golden point loss to the Bulldogs (!), narrow wins over the Raiders and Knights and more comfortable wins over the bad Roosters, the depleted Titans and the otherwise normal Dragons. In that run, they won two games against the run of possession and lost one, that extremely frustrating experience at the Warriors. The rest were either 50/50 splits or the team with the ball won the game.
The second phase ran between the first and the week following the third Origin game. The Cowboys ran the board, 6-0 and won games by an average of 24.5 points (+147 points difference) against the crème de la crème of the Storm, Panthers and Rabbitohs, and also the Sea Eagles and a crucial 74-0 revanche in Townsville against the Tigers. This period was extended slightly with two byes, turning a six game winning streak into two solid months of dominance, begetting dreams of grand final appearances if only this cavalcade of points and possession - in four of the wins, the Cowboys had over 52% possession but shockingly overcame a deficit against the Panthers - could be maintained.
Alas! Almost as soon as the State of Origin series was completed, the Cowboys turned back into pumpkins, losing two to Queensland rivals and two to good Sydney teams and taking a sole victory over the ailing Dolphins. With the season on the line in the final round, the Cowboys folded meekly in the face of the eventual premiers, who refused to take it easy. The points difference in this final phase of the 2023 Cowboys was -53, or -10.6 points per game.
Between that round 5 loss to the Dogs and that round 7 loss to the Warriors, the Cowboys could have been 14-10. While they would not have been a good team, ripe for a first week exit, being in the finals would have been better than not being in the finals. Fans are left wondering what happened and what might have been.
Undoubtedly, there are complex scheme and motivational and personnel reasons for this sudden downpour of form in the middle of an otherwise arid season, or the sudden eruption of wins to lift the team from the subterranean to the mountaintop only to fall back into a sea-level ravine over the course of three years. It is poetical that the former is likely a microcosm of the latter. Unfortunately, while I briefly considered grinding several seasons’ worth of tape to isolate and highlight these reasons, doing so would simply take too long for me to be able to send this out to you with any passing relevance to the season just passed.
It would be too simple to chalk the Cowboys’ purple patch up to playing teams suffering Origin outs. While the Steel Greys beat some of the more Origin-affected teams in Penrith, Melbourne and South Sydney, North Queensland had the second most Origin caps of any club in 2023, two less than the Panthers and three more than the Broncos. Strategically timed byes would have had more of influence, mitigating the impact of the Origin on the Cowboys’ best players who otherwise did seem to receive a temporary boost from playing for their state except, of course, for Reece Robson, who got a big fat L.
After re-reading the analysis posted after round 9, most of it still holds up at a high level. The Cowboys had the tenth-best defence in the league - bearing in mind that the league only has 17 teams - and the ninth-best attack in terms of points per game. North Queensland had among the fewest errors in the league, were close to the top for ineffective and missed tackles and about the middle to below average for most attacking stats. In terms of Wins Above Reserve Grade, the Cowboys back five were fifth, the key playmakers twelfth and the starting pack were fourteenth in the competition.
For a team whose strength has traditionally been up front, in the trenches, to be so far off the pace of the Titans, Broncos, Panthers and Warriors on this (admittedly limited) metric should be concerning. The non-half backs come off looking better but let’s remember that WARG does a poor job of assessing defensive competence. Dearden replicated his numbers from last year. Townsend was well short of producing what’s needed for the Cowboys to be in the elite tier. Bearing in mind that Chadwick played 11 games in 2020 and played 24 in 2023, it was his worst season by WARG since 2018. Robson played his worst season by WARG since moving to the North in 2020, producing about half of his output from last season.
Of the players that out-performed their TPR projections, there was only necomer Semi Velmei, the veteran Valentine Holmes largely benefitting from the emergence of the yardage centre, somehow old man Kyle Feldt (but very much not old man Jake Granville), attacking lynchpin Scott Drinkwater and Peta Hiku. All of the brand name forwards - Nanai, Luki, Robson, Leilua, Neame, Taumalolo, Hess and Cotter - underperformed expectations.
You can put whatever stock you want into those numbers but the eye test, the results and the stats all add up to not good enough for North Queensland. As I observed after the second Warriors loss, Todd Payten has had one bad year, one good year and now, one average year. Over those three seasons, the Cowboys have evened out to exactly 36-36 and a -12 points difference. That one good year has bought Payten time but the Cowboys looked structurally awful at points on both sides of the ball - often a listless offence and defence is disarray - and he is the engineer of this franchise. This level of performance might be sustainable over the long run but it absolutely does not align with expectations of Cowboys management or their fans. The Sharks tossed John Morris for a season of this kind of middling performance, let alone (on average) three.
So the Cowboys continue their struggle to adjust from their Whiggish pre-premiership world, where the effort and the narrative build to a single resplendent moment when Johnathan Thurston kicks that field goal in 2015, to a more chaotic post-premiership world, where the resources to do it all again need to be carefully reconstructed in such a way that another resplendent moment might be allowed to exist. Payten will be afforded another opportunity but there’s no reason the Cowboys shouldn’t be aiming to replicate 2022. If he can’t, then the reconstruction will need a new engineer because this one isn’t building anything.
To be fair, better and worse clubs have struggled with precisely this conundrum. It is, in fact, extremely common. Perhaps the most obvious victims are the post-2005 Wests Tigers. Less obviously and in different ways, this condition also afflicts the post-2016 Sharks, the post-1994 Raiders, the post-2010 Dragons, the post-2014 Rabbitohs, the post-2011 Sea Eagles, the post-2001 Knights, the post-2004 Bulldogs and, if you consider the run from 1992 to 2006 a singular Bennettian success, the Broncos. That leaves the only clubs to really solve it are everyone’s favourites - the Panthers, the Storm and the Roosters. How one might replicate their strategies is not immediately obvious, although it would not be hard to guess that it involves some form of cheating. Perhaps that is sour grapes but the cure at least is obvious: winning.
While analysis frustratingly middling teams like the Cowboys men’s team can be fascinating, analysing bad teams is rarely interesting. The depths plumbed by the brand new Cowboys women’s team were hardly unexpected for an expansion team, even if I was way too high on them in the pre-season1. The Cowboys were competitive with the Titans, inexplicably beat the Knights, were crushed by the Broncos, rallied to beat the Tigers with a last minute try, crushed by the Sharks, helpless to repel Rachel Pearson’s kicking and gave the Eels their only win, were crushed by the Dragons, crushed by the Raiders and crushed by the Roosters.
North Queensland weren’t that far off being winless or, perhaps more confusingly, taking a sole win from Newcastle. That feels like a poor rate of return when you examine the roster. There was no women’s team without Kirra Dibb and I hate to think what kind of product the Cowboys would have put on the pitch without her. Fran Goldthorp was quietly competent but perhaps should have been found a larger role in attack. The five-eighth took a while to settle on Tahlulah Tillett but got there in the end. Shaniah Power is a killer and Tallisha Harden rules. Emma Manzelmann is in the Jillaroos extended squad and China Polata played for Queensland. Bree Chester is an All-Star and a promising prospect. Autumn-Rain Stephens-Daly has played for New Zealand.
While there are certainly holes in this line-up, particularly up front and especially against the best teams in the competition, this team should certainly not be a last minute try away from an 1-8 record. Naturally, when the Cowboys got stuffed into their locker by most of the competition, defence was an issue and more precisely, it looked like half the team had no concept of how to defend at this level. The Cowboys were too easily spread apart with conventional shifts, or beaten by grubbers in behind for faster attackers, or punched through the line, or simply run around. If you can imagine a way of scoring a try, the Cowboys probably conceded it and generally didn’t make their opposition work too hard for it. As I said after round 7, “one defensive lapse led to a pounding on the next set, setting up the next defensive lapse and so on” - an ouroboros of pain.
A roster assembled relatively late compared to the metropolitan teams and a nine game sample size might mean a few different things. It may mean that there wasn’t enough time for the team to cohere. It may mean that there wasn’t enough time for coach Ben Jeffries to settle in on his best 17, although I don’t think that’s as hard as it was made to seem and tweaking every week almost certainly didn’t help matters, or fully install his philosophy. It definitely means that we didn’t see the best of what this team could offer. It may also hide any number of defects that may have been more evident in a longer season, like the coach doesn’t know how to structure a defence or the Cowboys haven’t invested sufficiently in their women’s program to be competitive or I have grossly overestimated this team’s capability and they just plain suck. We won’t know which mix of these, or others, hypotheses are true, if any, until sometime in 2024.
It would be a shame to waste seasons of some of this talent and they would hardly be the first footballers, even the first footballers at the North Queensland Cowboys, to find themselves in such a position. But it’s far too early to tell whether the snake can take its tail out of its mouth or if the snake decided to bite down and start pumping venom.
NRLM Player of the Year - Scott Drinkwater. The Shadow of Terrigal still sucks at defender but he is exceptional with the ball in hand. Not quite fast, not quite the best kicker but probably the most elusive player in the sport with a top five passing game. Honourable mention for Tom Dearden, who will be the best player on this team next year.
NRLW Player of the Year - Kirra Dibb. I cannot stress how little the Cowboys had to offer, especially in the first couple of games, without Kirra Dibb booting the ball to keep them at least within touching distance of being in the game.
Men’s Win of the Year - 74-0.
Women’s Win of the Year - Somehow the only team to beat Newcastle this year, the Cowboys defeated the Knights, 31-20, in round 2. It’s a win that looks even more inexplicable than it did at the time. It was a potential proof of concept for North Queensland but they failed to replicate holding the ball for fifteen straight minutes to close out the game as a winning strategy later in the season.
In 2023, the North Queensland Cowboys had an interesting year with their feeders, pouring all of their talent into the Townsville Blackhawks and nominally having similar arrangements with the Northern Pride and Mackay Cutters but actually cutting them off from the relationship they had enjoyed in previous years. I talked about these issues at length.
It remains to be seen what’s happening for 2024. The Blackhawks have been unequivocal that their relationship will change and the QRL have amended their rules to force the NRL clubs to spread talent around. It’s possible the Cowboys have accepted this, especially given the disastrous seasons both the senior and reserve sides had, or they will be de-camping for NSW Cup where they can run the North Queensland Cowboys at significant expense to themselves and any credibility they have as a Queensland club.
The Mackay Cutters took over the BMD Premiership licence from the North Queensland Gold Stars for 2023. The Pride will join the competition in 2025 and the Blackhawks in 2026.
Queensland Cup: 12th, 8-11-1, +25 [season review]
Colts: 3rd, 11-3, +364, won the premiership defeating Easts
WU19s: 9th, 3-2-1, +34
Mal Meninga Cup: 1st, 6-0, +148, runner-up to Redcliffe
Queensland Cup: 7th, 11-7-2, -79 [season review]
Colts: 14th, 0-14, -516
WU19s: 14th, 0-6, -190
Mal Meninga Cup: 10th, 2-3-1, -26
Queensland Cup: 14th, 3-17,-274 [season review]
QRLW: 3rd, 5-2, +82, lost to Burleigh in the preliminary final
Colts: 9th, 6-7-1, -89
WU19s: 2nd, 5-1, +90
Mal Meninga Cup: 7th, 3-2-1, +24
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I was trying to be nice to Cowboys fans and because I feel I over-equivocate these things, decided to extend myself a little about the Cowboys being able to put it together. That was a bad choice twice over.