The Cowboys stunned all in 2022 by rocketing up the ladder to go within one win of another grand final appearance following four years of struggle.
Todd Payten was a well-deserved winner of the Dally M Coach of the Year award, helping guide the club from a 15th placed finish in 2021 to their place in the top three and a preliminary final.
Payten will enter his third year at the Cowboys in 2023 and while some had questioned his vision, the addition of Chad Townsend worked wonders and unlocked the potential of young five-eighth Tom Dearden, who learnt to love his football again after moving back ‘home’ to the north from the Broncos.
Payten shifted players into unfamiliar positions, like throwing Reuben Cotter into prop, and reduced the minutes of Jason Taumalolo, who still managed to produce similar numbers, despite spending less time on the field.
Scott Drinkwater, who thought of himself as a five-eighth, was moved to fullback to fill in for an injured Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow in another masterstroke and finished the year as one of the competition’s most improved players, finishing fourth in the Dally M Medal tally.
The evolution of young players like Dearden and rookie of the year Jeremiah Nanai has also set up the Cowboys well for more improvement to come.
After being the surprise packets of 2022, they will no longer be flying under the radar in the season ahead.
Match: Cowboys v Raiders
Round 1 -
Venue: Queensland Country Bank Stadium, Townsville
Predicted Round 1 team
- Scott Drinkwater
- Kyle Feldt
- Peta Hiku
- Valentine Holmes
- Murray Taulagi
- Tom Dearden
- Chad Townsend
- Jordan McLean
- Reece Robson
- Reuben Cotter
- Coen Hess
- Jeremiah Nanai
- Jason Taumalolo
- Jake Granville
- Griffin Neame
- Jack Gosiewski
- James Tamou
Other: Luciano Leilua (stood down), Helium Luki (injured), Mitch Dunn (injured), Ben Hampton, Brendan Elliot, Gehamat Shibasaki, Jake Bourke, Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, Jordan Lipp, Laitia Moceidreke, Riley Price, Taniela Sadrugu, Tom Chester, Jai Hansen (development), Jodeci Baker-Tiraha (development), Ragarive Wavik (development).
The best NRL tries from the Cowboys in 2022
- Squad spots filled: 30/30
The Cowboys completed their squad early with the signing of former Knights outside back Gehamat Shibasaki filling the final spot last year.
James Tamou’s return is one of their main recruits, with the experienced prop back at the club that gave him his NRL debut.
Tamou's experience will be highly valued, is likely to be the main new face in the 17, although another signing in Jack Gosiewski will also be pressing to feature in the first game of the season and could find himself a spot on the bench.
The squad may have lost some key personnel, with three departures for new club the Dolphins in Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow, Tom Gilbert and Connelly Lemuelu, as well as Ben Condon to Manly.
Of their existing squad, Taniela Sadrugu will be one to watch. Standing at 191cm, Sadrugu is listed as a second rower, played lock for Fiji at the World Cup and also played 15 games for Townsville Blackhawks in 2022, all but one as centre.
Yet to make his NRL debut, the Cowboys announced the former Fijian Rugby Sevens star's elevation to their top 30 squad in August.
Taunoa-Brown on how footy has helped his on stage performances
Mitch Dunn, who only played two games in 2022 after tearing his ACL, is still on the road to recovery and unlikely to be fit for Round 1.
Another young player of promise Heilum Luki is the main injury concern for the Cowboys, with the second rower not projected to be back until Round 4 at the earliest.
Luciano Leilua is stood down indefinitely under the NRL's no-fault stand down policy.
Most contentious position
With the player movement the club has undergone in the off-season, the biggest question mark hangs over the forward pack and where to play everyone.
There is plenty of choice in the second row and up front, with most players capable of featuring at prop, lock or on the edge, all rotating through there this past season.
However, the departure of Tabuai-Fidow to the Dolphins has thrown up an interesting question regarding the bench utility position, with a number of contenders all able to bring their own benefits.
While the more experienced Jake Granville and versatile Ben Hampton can always be counted on to do their job, Townsville Brothers junior Tom Chester may just bring an enticing element of difference.
Having impressed in his one game last year, Chester is listed as a fullback, but has been training at centre, and at various stages of his career played as a half and at lock.
Todd Payten’s ability to get the best from his young players will again be the biggest strength for the side, who know they have a fantastic opportunity to go further this year.
The side’s experienced players all stepped up to play to their full potential, which helped build the confidence in the young side.
Aside from their preliminary final slip-up against the Eels, Payten's side made Townsville a fortress again and with a strong blend of youth and experience, the sky can be the limit in 2023.
Biggest question mark
In some ways, the club’s biggest strength is also their biggest question mark – can lighting strike twice? The Cowboys were written off before the season started last year, but coming into 2023, teams will not take the side lightly.
There will also be plenty of pressure applied to the young players who will be expected to perform at the same high level, but with increased responsibility.
However, if Payten can manage expectations and the workload of his players, there is no reason for the Cowboys not to perform well and defy expectations again.