North Queensland Cowboys 2017 Season in Review
The Cowboys march to the grand final without their two big stars was a sight to behold. Paul Zalunardo and Joel Gould take a look at the numbers which helped set the stage for North Queensland's dream run through the finals.
The squad has had minimal turnover under coach Paul Green and few sides encapsulate what it means to play as a true ''team'' like the Cowboys.
With Matt Scott and Johnathan Thurston set to return from injury and Test prop Jordan McLean on the way the Cowboys look set to figure deep into finals footy in 2018 once again.
Some real selection headaches loom for Green, including what to do with Te Maire Martin and which of his plethora of quality props he leaves off the bench.
''When you make a grand final you probably don’t need to rejig it a whole lot, just add where you need to, which for us was a quality front-rower in Jordan McLean,'' assistant coach Josh Hannay said.
''Greeny has said he didn’t rush out to replace James Tamou with anyone and he feels that 12 months on Jordan is a good replacement to fill that hole.
''We are all looking forward to hopefully a better run with injury next year and hopeful Matt Scott and JT can come back to full strength and the best version of themselves.
''With the addition of Jordan McLean and the experience some unheralded guys got this year there is reason to be optimistic for the season ahead.''
The absence of Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott provides an excuse, but the Cowboys’ home form was still shaky. They averaged only 15.5 points a game at home so their 6-6 mark could have been even worse. They averaged eight more points per match on the road.
Coen Hess finished 2017 as the top try scorer in the NRL among forwards, according to NRL.com/stats. His tally left him just outside a top 10 dominated by wingers. He shared top spot at the Cowboys with Kyle Feldt.
''That stat of 12 tries is pretty impressive for a young forward coming into the game. He was on a real roll there for a while and seemed to be scoring every week,'' Hannay said.
''We eased him into the NRL on the edge as a back-rower. He played more in the middle out of necessity as much as anything towards the back end of the year which might have nullified his try scoring opportunities a bit.''
The fact Johnathan Thurston played just seven matches was a large part of the reason why the Cowboys weren’t great in this area. Their average left them in the bottom half of the NRL.
The Cowboys finished second in this category but that effort did not transfer into line breaks. Twelve of the 16 teams in the competition averaged more line breaks than North Queensland. Mid-season arrival Te Maire Martin was the best of the Cowboys.
''To get a better measure of that you’d need to look at the previous years when we had JT for the entire season,'' Hannay said.
''Every team has their way of breaking down the opposition. For some it is brilliant individual attackers who can break the line. For us, once JT and Matt Scott were out, we worked out that building pressure and being patient with the footy was our strength in attack.''
When you exclude Matt Scott’s small sample size (two matches), the Cowboys were left with a group of hard workers who combined to get the work done. Kane Linnett, Gavin Cooper, Ethan Lowe and Antonio Winterstein averaged more than nine metres gained per run.
The Cowboys fared well when it came to not giving away penalties in the final three tackles of a defensive set. Winger Kyle Feldt gave away the most penalties, but was well clear of the worst 10 offenders in the NRL.
Kyle Feldt provided further evidence to the case that wingers are rugby league’s most error-prone players. Six of the top 10 error-makers in 2017 wore No.2 or No.5. The Cowboys finished equal 10th for most errors made.
It is no shock Jason Taumalolo was in the top three for requiring multiple defenders to bring him down, but the good thing for the Cowboys is he was not alone. Scott Bolton finished fifth on the list and John Asiata was 11th.
''Jason Taumalolo, no surprise. Scott Bolton sitting fifth on that list might surprise a lot of people, but not here because we appreciate what Bolts brings to the table,'' Hannay said.
''He doesn’t look like he’s breaking the line and running over people but he bends the line a lot and it takes a lot of defenders to bring him down. He is very powerful and has some subtle footwork as well.''
Shaun Fensom proved the biggest difference maker off the bench for North Queensland. His points differential wasn’t within sights of the best in the competition, but at least he gave the Cowboys a boost.
Kalyn Ponga broke more tackles (on average) than Jason Taumalolo during 2017. The now Newcastle utility back’s total was good enough for 10th best in the NRL.