10 reasons to look forward to 2019

North Queensland Toyota Cowboys fans sat heavy in the saddle in 2018 as the club missed out on NRL finals for the first time since 2010.

On top of that, several stars - headlined by the great Johnathan Thurston - rode off into the sunset, leaving a regenerated club to do battle in 2019.

Change brings opportunity, and there is great promise for the future and plenty of reasons to believe the Cowboys will rise again in 2019.

1. Jason Taumalolo won Dally M lock of the year again

The other JT was criticised in some quarters for lacking the impact he had in previous seasons. Those experts might need to look again. Taumalolo averaged over 178 metres per game in 2018, rattling up 4101m for the season as well as 1743 post contact metres. Expect the big fellow to extract plenty of passion from the historic Test between his native Tonga and Australia in October as well.

2. Jordan McLean returned to football from a tough injury run (and made the Australian Kangaroos)

The former Melbourne Storm prop was the blue-chip signing for 2018 but struggled with injuries through the season, playing just 10 games. But in those 10 games, McLean averaged almost 130m and had a 94.1 per cent tackle efficiency rate. Linking up with Taumalolo and Matt Scott, McLean will complete a fearsome engine room for the Cowboys in 2019.

3. The emergence of Jake Clifford as an NRL player and Junior Kangaroo

Earning his spurs late in the season, the 20-year-old halfback from Tully showed he is every inch an NRL player. In just six NRL matches, Clifford averaged 0.83 forced dropouts, 0.5 try assists and 0.33 line break assists. Compare those stats to Dally M halfback of the year Luke Brooks (0.88 forced dropouts, 0.42 try assists and 0.625 line break assists per game) and Clifford is already in good company, remembering he had to earn his stats playing alongside the great Johnathan Thurston. Clifford was rewarded for his form with a berth in the Prime Minister's XIII to tour PNG as well as the Junior Kangaroos.

4. The signing of Ben Barba

It was sad for fans to say goodbye to premiership-winning fullback Lachlan Coote in the off-season, but his replacement Ben Barba comes with a strong pedigree. A Dally M player of the year and premiership winner, the Mackay product ripped through the English Super League with St Helens, winning the Man of Steel award for best player, and is keen to show he is still a premier player at NRL level. His exit following the Sharks premiership win was controversial, but with good football under his belt and a desire to represent his native North Queensland burning in his chest, Barba could well return to Australia at his electric best.

5. A refreshed Michael Morgan

One of the defining moments of the 2018 season was the loss of home-grown half Michael Morgan to a biceps injury for the season. But was this actually a blessing in disguise? 2017 was a huge year for Morgan, playing his role in Queensland's State of Origin series win and the Australian Kangaroos' World Cup-winning campaign. That meant very little rest, niggling injuries and a sports hernia that affected him on the field. He may have missed the second half of the 2018 season, but that will mean Morgan lines up fresh, injury-free and hungry to become the No.1 half in North Queensland following the retirement of Thurston.

6. Kyle Feldt is emerging as one of the premier wingers in the NRL

The hardy Cowboys supporters that stood in the driving rain at the Johnathan Thurston and Cameron Smith Testimonial match last February were delivered a treat when Feldt leapt into the air and plucked the ball from his rival's grasp one-handed. These aerial acrobatics are becoming the norm for Feldt, who scored the match-levelling try in the 2015 grand final. To date, representative honours have eluded Feldt, but Queensland's series loss to New South Wales in 2018 means all positions come under scrutiny. Could this be the year of Kyle Feldt?

7. Dally M coach of the year winner Paul Green is back in the saddle

Hot from four seasons of finals - including two grand finals - Cowboys coach Paul Green had some high-powered interest in his services. Thankfully for Cowboys supporters, Green signed on to stay in North Queensland. With a new breed of players coming through, this will be Green's chance to unleash a new playbook that will bamboozle the rest of the NRL.

8. We have speed to burn in the backs

Along with Coote, Antonio Winterstein (retired) and Kane Linnett (released) have also departed the Cowboys. That means young blood like Junior Kangaroo Enari Tuala and Gideon Gela-Mosby have a chance to nail down regular spots, along with new recruits Ben Barba, Tom Opacic, Nene Macdonald and Dan Russell. Tuala was also named in the PM's XIII squad with Clifford, and GGM showed lightning pace in his four NRL games in 2018. With players like Justin O'Neill, Ben Hampton and Te Maire Martin (who deputised at fullback in 2018) vying for spots, competition is going to be fierce in the backs this off-season.

9. Gavin Cooper just keeps getting better with age

Like a prized bottle of red wine, Coops only gets better with age. The hardy second-rower will turn 34 this season, but will come into the year with some of the best form of his life under his belt. Cooper scored 13 tries in 2018, including an incredible nine tries in nine consecutive matches - breaking the record of eight set by newly inducted immortal Frank Burge in 1918. It was also the largest haul of any forward in 2018 and went along with a sublime defensive effort of 684 tackles - averaging almost 39 tackles per game. Cooper also played the entire State of Origin series and is just 16 games shy of joining the 300 NRL games club.

10. We have some of the best support in the NRL, from all corners of North Queensland

Despite results not going our way, a spate of Thursday night home games and inclement North Queensland weather, 185,000 fans poured through the turnstiles of 1300SMILES Stadium in 2018 - an average of 15,417 per game. They also showed the faith by signing up as club members in force, notching up a club record of 23,437. Our boys have one of the strongest supporter bases in the game and the players never take that for granted. They look forward to your support in 2019 and aim to repay the faith with strong results on the field.