Contenders: Back row

We're profiling the contenders for each position for the NRL season ahead – here are head coach Paul Green’s strong list of options for the back-row positions.

GAVIN COOPER

With his first senior representative jersey from the Australian Prime Minister’s XIII game against PNG now secured and a trouble-free pre-season so far, Cooper should start the new season with some confidence.

His left-edge combination with good mate Johnathan Thurston has been one of the Cowboys’ attacking strengths and it will be interesting to see if new head coach Paul Green continues with that duo side-by-side.

Wherever he features, you can count on Cooper punching some holes in opposition defences and being one of North Queensland’s most dependable tacklers in 2014.

His 612 tackles for the 2013 season were the most by any Cowboy and he can also be a weapon taking the high ball.

GLENN HALL

Now North Queensland’s oldest player, Hall was one of only two Cowboys to play in all 24 home and away matches plus the final in 2013.

Nineteen of his appearances were in the starting team, including one in the front-row, and he was in the run-on squad from round 18 onwards.

Hall’s missed tackle rate of just 1.0 per game, compared to 22.4 tackles made each week, ranked him second among all Cowboys forwards who played at least 10 matches.

He’s averaged almost 24 matches per season since coming to NQ and will close in on both 100 games for the Cowboys and 200 for his NRL career if he can do that again.

One of the challenges for the 32-year-old will be holding out hungry young forwards such as Jason Taumalolo, Tariq Sims and Ethan Lowe who will want his regular starting spot.

JOEL RIETHMULLER

Last year’s winner of the Cowboys’ Most Improved Player award will have his mind set on holding on to the No.13 jersey that he stepped into so well when Dallas Johnson was sidelined late last season.

Even though he only played in half of the Cowboys’ NRL matches, Riethmuller finished second in the Players’ Player of the Year voting – a sign of how highly his teammates rated his contribution each week.

Renowned for his defence, work rate and fitness levels, Riethmuller’s 31.8 tackles per game ranked him second behind Dallas Johnson (35.8) and he was averaging more than 100 metres per game in attack until being held to 47 metres in the elimination final against Cronulla.

He isn’t the type of player to rest on his achievements from last season.

JASON TAUMALOLO

With an amazing ability to shed defenders, or step around them, Taumalolo is becoming a Cowboys crowd favourite.

The Tonga Test representative mixed his time between the NRL and Intrust Super Cup last year, starting in two of his 14 NRL appearances.

Although he had a season-high 152 metres against the Titans in round 12, his most impressive performance was his 134 metres, 12 tackle busts and try achieved in just 40 minutes of gametime in the knockout final against Cronulla.

It will be interesting to see how Paul Green uses one of his squad’s biggest attacking weapons and how long it takes Taumalolo to break through to a long-term starting role.

RORY KOSTJASYN

Kostjasyn quickly established a reputation as being one of the Cowboys’ most reliable defenders in the important middle third of the field in his first season with the club.

He played the majority of his 20 NRL matches in 2013 the dummy-half role, with the bulk of those games coming in the opening half of the season, although he ended up back in the No.9 for the final two matches, and the final against Cronulla, after Ray Thompson was sidelined by his broken jaw.

Also suited to the back-row, Kostjasyn racked up 30 tackles or more five times in the NRL, including twice in those closing three weeks and he went on to play hooker for Ireland in the Rugby League World Cup, topping the tournament’s average tackles per game count with 40+.

With Dallas Johnson now retired, Kostjasyn would love to take over the No.13 jersey.

ETHAN LOWE

More NRL matches should be coming Lowe’s way in 2014 if he continues his healthy rate of development.

The 22-year-old broke through for his NRL debut in round 12 last year when he came off the bench against the Gold Coast Titans and scored the Cowboys’ final try in a disappointing defeat.

He then earned his first start in the run-on pack against Manly six weeks later when NQ were again without their Origin representatives, playing 63 minutes against the Eagles’ highly rated pack, giving him a good indication of what it’s like at NRL level.

A strong ball runner and defender, it’s players like Lowe who could well be the future of the Cowboys.

JOHN ASIATA

The NYC team of the year lock forward has renewed his association with his under-20s coach Paul Green by joining the Cowboys from the Sydney Roosters on a two-year contract.

His outstanding form during 2013, his second year in NYC, included being ranked No.1 in the Roosters’ forward pack for metres gained per match and third overall for linebreak assists.

He ran for more than 100 metres in 12 matches in 2013, with a season-high of 174 metres against eventual premiers Penrith in round 21.

Although he’s likely to start the year off with the Northern Pride in the Intrust Super Cup, don’t discount him from breaking through to the first 17 sometime during the year.