This article was first written for and published for The Roar.
After their 27-10 loss to the Canterbury Bulldogs on Saturday night, North Queensland’s season is in trouble and I don’t know what they need to do to fix it.
That makes it five consecutive losses for the Cowboys – only the Parramatta Eels have been as disappointing on the field.
The Cowboys began the season as premiership favourites and for good reason. Last year they made the grand final despite being without Matt Scott for most of the season, Johnathan Thurston for half of it, and injuries to players like Michael Morgan and Lachlan Coote throughout.
Not only did they have Thurston and Scott returning, but they also bolstered their forward pack with the signing of Jordan McLean and were tipped to be stronger in attack because of what Morgan learnt when he took control of the team in JT’s absence.
But what was working last year doesn’t seem to be working anymore.
The most obvious thing that has happened is that everyone is a year older. I know that is stating the obvious, but for the first time, they look, slow, old and off the pace.
There’s no getting around that some members are nearing the end of their careers. Thurston is 34 years old – an age where many players have retired. I don’t think many realised how much impact his last injury would have on him. While he will never be the player he was ten years ago, he is no longer the man they just throw the ball to and expect to create magic.
But even Morgan, who is not old and slow, looks it at the moment.
Before his performance against the Bulldogs, I was a proponent of giving Morgan control of this team. In the past, the Cowboys have depended on Thurston playing on both sides of the ruck. I thought it was time for Morgan to take more control in attack.
But against the Dogs he also looked off the pace and made a couple of crucial errors, including kicking a ball out on the full and passing the ball to no one.
The other fundamental problem is that the pack is not having the impact it used to.
Part of this is down to Jason Taumololo having less impact. Taumololo was the best forward in the game in 2017, finishing with 4469 metres at an average of 203 – up from 2016, when he made 4002 metres at an average of 167.
I wonder whether this dip in form can be put down to teams working out how to contain him – a good example of which was shown when they played the Broncos and Tevita Pangai Junior shut Taumololo down – whether he has taken a lesser role because of the return of Matt Scott or if he is tired following his impact in 2016, 2017 and during the World Cup.
This year, Taumololo is averaging about 150 metres per game. As a Parramatta fan, I am desperate for these sorts of numbers, but it is not the impact we are used to.
The lack of impact from the forwards is also problematic because North Queensland depend on their big men to put their spine in a position to run structured attacking plays.
At its core, footy is a simple game. It is the role of the forwards to make metres and get their team into the attacking zone. Once the forwards have laid the platform, the backline can put pressure on the defence and hopefully score points.
North Queensland have adhered to this formula for several years.
On the back of a successful forward pack and an exceptional spine, other deficiencies – most notably their backline – have not been highlighted.
A good example is the difficulty they have scoring long-range tries. In the year the Cowboys won the competition, they only scored two tries from over halfway. This year, they are having trouble getting down the field, are not able to play inside their proven structures and, as a result, are struggling.
Coach Paul Green is a big believer in playing his way out of trouble. He is loyal and I do not expect him to make too many changes ahead of their next game, against the Titans.
But how much longer can we say ‘it’s early in the season, give them time’?
The Cowboys may only be two wins outside the top eight, but how much longer do we have before we declare their season to be on life support?