This article was first written for and published for The Roar.
Heading into Round 12, North Queensland sit in 15th spot on the ladder with six points. It’s fair to say that for the Cowboys to play finals in September, they will require some sort of miracle – or an epic turnaround in form.
2018 has been a rollercoaster from Round 1 so it’s almost too easy to forget that heading into this season the narrative was that the Cowboys were going to win the premiership after their gritty and spirited performances last year which saw them make the grand final.
Matt Scott was meant to return from injury and bolster the Cowboys forward pack. Michael Morgan was meant to have continued the form which saw him lead the Cowboys to the grand final last year and Johnathan Thurston was meant to slot back into the side, recovered from that shoulder injury almost as good as new.
This hasn’t happened and I don’t think it’s going to.
As difficult as this is to write, the shoulder injury which sidelined Thurston last year has impacted his game in a way that none of us could have predicted.
Thurston will go down in NRL history as one of the greatest players to have ever played the game. He has become an ornament of the sport – not just an immensely talented player and a family man, but also one that has become a passionate advocate for the issues in the game that mean the most to him, particularly recognition of our First Nations people.
This article is not meant to detract from this. Thurston will always be a champion. But he is no longer having the same impact on the field as he once had and he has no idea what to do to fix it.
I’m not sure he can.
There are some players that have long careers in our game because they are clever footy players who, over time, develop a plan to overcome lessening in one skill by complementing it with another. Billy Slater is a great example of this. He knew he couldn’t rely on his speed forever, so he has become a playmaker and this season we’ve seen the introduction of a kicking game into his wide skill set.
The difference between this and the situation that JT now finds himself in is that Slater had the benefit of time.
Thurston has not. This change has happened so quickly. He has come back from an injury and suddenly, what once worked isn’t working anymore.
Perhaps for the first time in his career, him having the ball in his hands less in the answer.
Throughout his career, Thurston has become known as a game changer. I’ve seen it on countless occasions when the Cowboys have been down by a try or two and something shifts – Thurston decides that he is going to win the game. And he did.
But he has tried this a couple of times this year and it just hasn’t worked. Take the Cowboys’ loss to the Brisbane Broncos by 24-20. JT did everything in his power to win that game and he just couldn’t. He did come close with an inside ball with 90 seconds to go to Scott Bolton. Unfortunately, the goal post had other ideas.
After the game he looked dejected… and lost.
For the first time, the short ball to Gavin Cooper isn’t consistently producing results. Thurston playing both sides of the ruck and going to the line isn’t working either. He has lost some of his speed. He is also holding off slightly in defence.
It is a perfect storm for the Cowboys. Thurston’s decline in form has also coincided with that of other players.
Scott has not had the same impact this year (and he may find himself sidelined for an extended period after potentially doing a medial ligament in the game against the Rabbitohs). Morgan has been unable to recapture last year’s form. Coen Hess, while potent in attack, is struggling in defence and Ethan Lowe for some reason has been playing limited minutes and this week was dropped.
For the longest time, North Queensland have been a team that has been built around Johnathan Thurston, a side that is focused on power and strength rather than speed. This dip in form for some players and the focus on power and strength has meant the Cowboys’ ball movement is slow across the board, so they are getting jammed by the defensive line early and often.
It’s no surprise that the injection of some young players added some energy into the squad this weekend with Francis Molo, Enari Tuala and Corey Jensen all coming in just before half-time. These players are part of the Cowboys’ future.
It’s now time for North Queensland to start preparing for that future without players like JT and Scott.
Not for one moment am I suggesting that JT should be dropped. He is still an excellent halfback and he is also a champion. Dropping him is also not going to change how he plays footy.
There just needs to be some understanding that he is not the player that he was.
As for the Cowboys, I am calling this season for them. That gives them an opportunity now to look toward the future and give some of the next generation a chance to come in and get some first-grade experience before a fresh start to 2019.