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Act of Squad: Cowboys predicted Round 1 team and 2024 analysis

They may have taken a tumble in 2023 but the Cowboys have more than enough talent to launch themselves back into contention next season.

With veteran centre Peta Hiku the only regular first-grader to leave the club, coach Todd Payten has a settled line-up to work with as he looks to revive the free-flowing footy that carried the Cowboys to a preliminary final in 2022.

Hiku’s departure to Super League opens the door for classy youngster Zac Laybutt to nail down a spot after impressing in his four games in 2023, while club legend Kyle Feldt will battle it out with Semi Valemei for the right wing spot.

Classy five-eighth Tom Dearden’s decision to re-sign for five more years is a huge boost for the 2015 premiers and his combination with Chad Townsend at the scrumbase will be crucial to the Cowboys’ chances of returning to the finals.

Up front, the Cowboys boast outstanding depth with a host of Origin and Test stars vying for positions in the pack, led by Maroons workhorse Reuben Cotter and Tongan powerhouse Jason Taumalolo.

Young tearaway Kulikefu Finefeuiaki impressed plenty of good judges in his 12 NRL games in 2023 and will keep the heat on experienced back-rowers Jeremiah Nanai, Heilum Luki and Luciano Leilua.

Competition for bench spots will also be hot, particularly among the forwards with Jamayne Taunoa-Brown, Sam McIntyre and Jack Gosiewski all in the mix.

NRL Fantasy club by club: Cowboys

Predicted Round 1 team

1. Scott Drinkwater
2. Kyle Feldt
3. Zac Laybutt
4. Valentine Holmes
5. Murray Taulagi
6. Tom Dearden
7. Chad Townsend
8. Jason Taumalolo
9. Reece Robson
10. Coen Hess
11. Jeremiah Nanai
12. Heilum Luki
13. Reuben Cotter
14. Jake Granville
15. Jordan McLean
16. Griffin Neame
17. Luciano Leilua

Key Changes

Ins: Viliami Vailea (Warriors), Thomas Mikaele (Warrington Wolves) - development list.
Outs: James Tamou (retired), Peta Hiku (Hull KR), Mitch Dunn (retired).

Granville: I've been impressed with all the halves

Health Check

Tom Chester (knee, Round 2). 

Positional battle to watch

Stand by for a showdown between Heilum Luki, Luciano Leilua and Kulikefu Finefeuiaki for a back-row spot alongside Jeremiah Nanai, who is a guaranteed starter despite being restricted to just 13 games in 2023.

After making his Origin and Test debuts in a breakout 2022, Nanai came back to the field last year as two suspensions and a shoulder injury ripped a hole in his season, but he’ll be ready to fire on all cylinders in 2024. Leilua arrived in Townsville midway through 2022 from Wests Tigers and his ability to break a game open has made him a valuable asset while 19-year-old Finefeuiaki looms as the X-factor for Payten.

On the back of a Test debut for Samoa in the Pacific Championships, Luki enters the new year determined to stamp his authority after a couple of injury-interrupted seasons.

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.