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Tip sheet: 10 talking points for the Cowboys in 2023

North Queensland were the surprise packets of the 2022 season with the men from Townsville shocking the competition to get within one win of the decider.

They let slip a big chance to make their first grand final in five years but should otherwise be proud of a season that should set them up nicely for 2023. reflects on the Cowboys' 2022 campaign and the major talking points ahead of their return to pre-season training.

Pride restored

What a season to remember for the Cowboys, a campaign that puts them back on the map in the NRL after a few lean years.

The Cowboys found their identity again under Todd Payten this season, who not only revolutionised the side's attack but got their defensive resolve back.

North Queensland went from 31.1 points per game in 2021 to just 15 for a 50% reduction within 12 months.

Coach of the year

Todd Payten took blame for the club's dire 2021 season, identified the weaknesses and put things in place for an improved campaign in his second year in charge of North Queensland. 

For all his decision-making, which later earned him coach of the year honours, Payten is coach on the rise with the club's decision to lure him from the Warriors now starting to pay dividends.

Some of Payten's selection calls and decision making, including the rise of Reuben Cotter as a middle forward, were among his most impressive.

You get the feeling Payten and his coaching staff will know exactly what is required to take the next steps in 2023 after already shocking the competition the side's fast turnaround.

2022 Dally M Coach of the Year - Todd Payten

Prelim final learnings

Cowboys fans shouldn't feel too disheartened by the club's preliminary finals exit despite an opportunity to feature in the 2022 grand final slipping through their fingers. 

The warning sign for them came during their win over the Sharks by a field goal in week one, where they conceded 30 points, and they weren't able to hold the Eels out a fortnight later.

These are lessons learned for most of the Cowboys outfit, who hadn't featured in too many big game matches before. 

The hurt from the result is sure to stick with the side and provide all the motivation in 2023.

The unlikely pairing

Tom Dearden went winless in his first 10 games at the Cowboys and Chad Townsend's signing was written off by many as a waste of money. 

But like the side's turnaround, these two have proven more than capable of taking the Cowboys through to more success in at least the next two seasons while Townsend remains under contract. 

The Cowboys have struggled to replace Johnathan Thurston since his retirement in 2018 but Townsend's immediate impact at Townsville has them well-placed to push for a title while he's contracted at the club.

Yarrawarrah yearning: Townsend's journey to 200

Holmes finds a home

Is he a winger? Is he a fullback? Valentine Holmes has faced the questions his whole career but answers have finally been answered after a barnstorming year in the centres under Todd Payten. 

Payten's brutal honesty in training Holmes in the centres from the start has given the Cowboys star enough clarity to make the left edge spot his own. 

His confidence followed into the representative arena too with Holmes now representing the Maroons and Australia in the same position.

Nanai a freakish find

Jeremiah Nanai stole the show in 2022 with his 17 tries breaking the record for most by a forward in a season. 

Nanai collected rookie of the year honours and capped a magnificent year by making his Test debut for Australia at the World Cup.

His one-year contract extension opens the door for many possibilities in 2023 and if he can replicate his first major season in the NRL then the Cowboys will be absolutely desperate to lock him down long term.

2022 Dally M Rookie of the Year - Jeremiah Nanai

Managing Taumalolo's workload

Many questioned the decision to reduce Jason Taumalolo's game time in recent years with Payten's coaching methods fresh to the game.

He tinkered with some players and their positions, he stuck solid on other selection calls and his biggest of all was trimming down the workload of Taumalolo in a bring to prolong his career.

Getting more quality out of the Tongan forward than quantity was the reasoning in a nutshell and with a powerful pack alongside him you got just that. 

Taumalolo averaged 55 minutes per game in 2022, a drop on last year, but still produced similiar numbers and was more effective as the game went on.

Drinkwater wins No.1 race

Scott Drinkwater finished the season as one of the most improved players in the competition and his four-year contract extension in September sets him up to be the club's fullback long-term. 

It's tough news for Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, who is now off to the Dolphins, but that type of competition creates performance and Drinkwater was among the stars of the show for the Cowboys in 2022. 

After learning his craft under Billy Slater at Melbourne before moving to Townsville, Drinkwater's breakout season is a big sign of things to come.

Don't forget Heilum

Forgotten man Heilum Luki will make his return to the side in 2023 after an ACL injury ruined his chance to feature in the second half of the season. 

Luki's performances were equally as impressive as Jeremiah Nanai's with the Cowboys' investment in both players throughout their junior careers appearing to pay off. 

With Luciano Leilua now on board and Mitch Dunn due back from injury too, it will be interesting to see the decision making around the second row. 

Luki is likely to come off the bench as he did in 11 of the 14 games played in 2022, and particularly coming back from injury, but long-term he is re-signed to the Cowboys longest after putting pen to a new three-year deal in February.

Barnstorming Luki can't be stopped

Tamou set for fairytale finish

A signing for leadership and a homecoming of sorts.

James Tamou's one-year deal at the Cowboys is fitting after he made his NRL debut at the club in 2009 before going on to play 170 games, one of which he finished a premiership winner.

Tamou will replace Dolphins-bound forward Tom Gilbert in the middle and although his age will be against him, playing in a forward pack that has the star power will be a stark contrast to his time at the Wests Tigers. 

Both Tamou and Jordan McLean will be the senior players in the middle along with the services of Jason Taumalolo, providing the perfect mix of leadership.

Acknowledgement of Country

North Queensland Cowboys respect and honour the Traditional Custodians of the land and pay our respects to their Elders past, present and future. We acknowledge the stories, traditions and living cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples on the lands we meet, gather and play on.