Today is day 4 of my season previews and this time, we’ll pay a visit to the beautiful city of Townsville, assessing the North Queensland Cowboys and what their hopes, ambitions, strengths and weaknesses are, for the 2013 season. Here we go.

Over the last few seasons, the Cowboys have gotten progressively better and went very close to going all the way in 2012, before an overly contentious decision in their semi-final against the Manly Sea Eagles cost them any chance of progressing, thus ending their season at that point.

2013, however, marks the start of a new year and a new chapter for the North Queensland Cowboys who have retained much of the same side as last year, boasting an all-star starting front-row in Matt Scott and James Tamou, an electrifying fullback in Matt Bowen and the game’s best half in Johnathan Thurston.

Add to that their more unheralded players like Ashley Graham, coming off a career best season in 2012, Gavin Cooper, who is one of, if not the most under-rated player in the entire NRL, and other players like Antonio Winterstein, Dallas Johnson and Ashton Sims.

In regards to recruitment in a bid to further improve their side, the club made some handy acquisitions, acquiring Melbourne Storm utility Rory Kostjaysn, English hooker Scott Moore, former Dragons fullback Clint Greenshields and young, budding prospect Curtis Rona from the Sydney Roosters.

With those new additions and with the side they already boast, one would presume that the Cowboys have the caliber of players and depth to mount a serious title challenge in 2013, one that they will be hoping his controversy-free.

Like any club, however, there will always be concerns or grievances that may affect their road to NRL premiership glory.

One glaring factor in my view (whether it affects the club or the individual is a whole different story), is the constant speculation surrounding the future of half, Johnathan Thurston.
With speculation surfacing for months now that he’ll stay at the club or head elsewhere, the question remains – will Thurston be focused on his game at hand, emulating the success we saw from him last year? Will it affect the club in any way, or will they have ways to cope with that adversity and speculation.

Every North Queensland fan would be hopeful that Thurston would stick around – after all, that’s what Matt Scott and James Tamou did, both signing new long-term contracts at the club, so Cowboys fans would be hopeful that they can keep their core players together, in a bid to create a potential dynasty.

Regardless of the situation, however, there’s no doubt that Thurston would feel the need to showcase his talents, which would only further fuel the fire as to his future location. Whether that’s at the Cowboys or elsewhere, only time will tell.

One element of positivity to look forward to, is the return of back-rower, Tariq Sims.

Marred by two horrific leg injuries in consecutive seasons, the young forward finally looks fit and raring to go, keen to fulfill the potential that saw him cause problems galore for opposition defences before his injury – with a chance he may even be considered for NSW Origin, if he plays well enough.
Can Sims remain on the field long enough to help the Cowboys where needed, or will the constant thought of potential injury based on his injury history weigh on his mind, resulting in a change to his overall game.

Fans would be divided over one initial point at the Cowboys, and that is the very real possibility that halfback Robert Lui will start the season in that role, following a jaw injury to Michael Morgan, ruling him out for the first 3-4 weeks.

It’s been well documented as to what Lui has done in the past, and whilst we all hope that such instances are now well and truly behind him, there’s always that lingering possibility that it only takes one snap and we’ll see it all again.
For some Cowboys fans and for myself personally, I sincerely hope that that doesn’t happen, given the amount of talent Lui has as a halfback, meaning some strong performances in Morgan’s absence, may well see him retain the halfback role for the 2013 season.

With the pressure on Lui to help support Thurston in the halves early on, is he up to and can he emulate his form from his first couple of seasons, or will the lingering pressure and uncertainty affect his game allowing Morgan to come straight back in?
Whilst Lui is talented, talent that is there for all to see, one would imagine that Michael Morgan would slot straight back into the halfback role upon his return – given the way he played last year, offering fantastic support to Thurston throughout the year.
Perhaps not expected to have such impact, certainly not to the extent that he did, he made Thurston’s life a lot easier by playing his natural game and supporting Thurston where possible.

One other smokey contender for the halfback role, however, is that of Ray Thompson. Confined to watching from the sidelines last year as the season dwindled down due to a recurring shoulder injury that required surgery, Thompson is fit and raring to go, eager to win back that coveted halfback spot, one he occupied before his injury.

Whilst he does remain a possibility, the early indications out of the Cowboys camp is that Thompson may be groomed as a hooker or the interchange hooker, previously vowing to patch up his defence in a bid to play at dummy half when required and called upon by coach Neil Henry.
Wherever he plays in 2013, should he play, he’ll be looking to make himself a mainstay in the Cowboys side at some point in the season.

Finally, with the talent across the park that the Cowboys boast and based on what they’ve achieved in the last couple of seasons, building to the point they’re currently at, they’ll be a tough side to beat particularly at 1300Smiles Stadium.
With a potentially renewed sense of hope to go that one step further in the NRL finals, the club will be determined to make a good run and have a solid year on their road to the finals – something that you wouldn’t put it past them to do, given the players (both in their 17 and as depth), that they have at their disposal.

By ricky

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