Thurston ready for big final season
It is an enormous challenge but one they have met before, and that is why the North Queensland Cowboys remain confident of retaining eight off-contract players from last year’s grand final squad.
North Queensland re-signed all of their 2015 premiership-winning side for the following season, the first team to do so since Parramatta won the 1983 grand final and kept their squad for the next year.
Several of the players have options, but the contracts of Lachlan Coote, Antonio Winterstein, Justin O’Neill, Michael Morgan, Shaun Fensom, Jake Granville, Ethan Lowe and Kane Linnett all expire at the end of 2018.
Cowboys general manager of football operations Peter Parr said the situation was not foreign to the club but when off-contract players wanted to stay, keeping them was achievable.
As players have attained representative honours and the Cowboys team has become more successful in recent years, keeping everyone has presented more of a challenge.
''I think it probably gets a little bit trickier, but we are still confident,'' Parr told NRL.com.
''We pride ourselves on the fact that we plan well and that our cap will be in good enough shape that we can keep them if they want to stay.
''There is no crystal ball with all this, but where I think we have been fortunate is that our players have always wanted to stay.
''I have always found that if they want to stay and you want to keep them, then you can usually find some common ground to keep everybody happy. We have a good history of retaining rather than recruiting, and of developing from within.''
All things being equal, the Cowboys will field the same starting 13 in round one as they did in the 2015 grand final, with the exception of Jordan McLean coming in for James Tamou.
John Asiata and Scott Bolton both came off the bench in the 2015 Telstra Premiership decider and remain key members of the top 17.
Ben Hampton has replaced Rory Kostjasyn. Ben Hannant retired and the Cowboys have developed Coen Hess, on scholarship with the club since 2012, through the ranks.
The low turnover in the Cowboys squad is a point of pride for the club and a rare achievement in modern times.
“We have made the finals the last seven years and that always does put stress on your cap,” Parr said.
“The Broncos, Melbourne and Manly were always good at putting strong squads together for long periods of time. We don’t profess to be the experts in it but we think we are doing a reasonable job at the moment and we are going to keep doing our best.
“Because of the stability we provide, we are hopeful that our players want to remain at the club. We have been given no indication that [the current off-contract stars] don’t. If that is the case, we think that is a good starting point.”
Cowboys coach Paul Green told NRL.com his philosophy about squad maintenance was to focus on retention rather than recruitment
“We will see how we go and try and fit everyone in. The boys enjoy playing with each other which always helps,” he said.
“If you are starting from a position where players want to stay, you find a way to get it done.”
Parr said the club had planned for the situation of having a bunch of free agents on the horizon.
“The last couple of years a number of agents wanted their players to come off contract in 2017 when the new CBA was being initiated,” Parr explained.
“Our club was cautious that if we were extending players past 2017 that it wasn’t too far past until we got some sort of picture around the CBA.
“When we did the Jason Taumalolo [10-year] deal last year we were getting some direction around where it was going to head, but a lot of these other deals were done well before that when we weren’t sure where the cap was going to go.
“We are a club that has always tried to avoid back-ended contacts and ratchet clauses and things like that.”