The NSW Blues have been named for the first game of the 2017 #Origin series.
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After securing premiership glory in 2015, the North Queensland Cowboys did an admirable job of defending its title by making it through to week 3 of the playoffs and just one game short of another Grand Final appearance.
The NRL is a hostile business and when everyone is trying to knock you off your perch it can be hard to turn up each week, credit must go to the Cowboys for playing some great football during 2016.
The Cowboys had the second best attack in the league and had no less than three players cross for more than 10 tries. Whilst the defence only let in on average 14.7 points per game.
However, if you think for one second that Paul Green is happy with his side being contenders and being content with that 2015 crown, then you would be badly mistaken. There is a strong desire for North Queensland to again knock on that Grand Final door and they still have a very talented squad which should help its case.
They lose big man James Tamou to Penrith but have more than enough big bodies to cover the New South Wales representative's departure. The signing of Ben Hampton from Grand Finalists Melbourne again boosts its backline. Hampton could become valuable when State of Origin time comes as he can cover multiple positions from centre to five-eighth to halfback.
With Jonathan Thurston again returning to lead the charge and a brilliant supporting cast of Michael Morgan, Jake Granville and a rejuvenated Lachlan Coote the rest of the NRL will need to be on notice as one of the competition's heavyweights ride into town.
Because they have the best player in the world and one of the best spines in the NRL. 15 other NRL clubs are envious of the Cowboys and their number 7: Jonathan Thurston. His ability to pull a miracle from anywhere on the field has become a regular occurrence since his move to the Cowboys in 2005. A lot more wiser and experienced then he was when he first arrived in Townsville, Thurston's skills haven't diminished at all and he has the best short kicking game in the NRL as well as having one of the best short passing games. His combination over the past few seasons with back-rowers Gavin Cooper and Ethan Lowe has been masterful to watch. Just like a fine wine, JT seems to be getting better with age.
Adding to this is 2016 Dally M co-winner Jason Taumalolo who has come along in leaps and bounds in the last few years. He has won a premiership, recorded back to back Dally M Lock of the year awards as well as securing the Dally M medal last year. It's a scary proposition that this young man is just 23 years of age and has improvement in him.
His ability to bust open defensive lines and then compliment that with silky ball skills and a ripper offload, Taumalolo could be the x-factor for a premiership run by the Cowboys.
Supporting Thurston's bid to win another premiership for the Cowboys are Lachlan Coote, Michael Morgan and Jake Granville. Along with JT, the Cowboys have arguably the most potent spine in the NRL. Paul Green has drummed into his side since his arrival about the importance of players doing their jobs. These three men have been doing that and if they find similar form to the past two seasons then a season of glory could be in the offering for the Cowboys.
The Cowboys could still have mental scars from last year's Preliminary Final defeat to the Sharks where the Townsville lads were blown away by a committed and scintillating Sharks outfit.
The Cowboys inability to win games against Cronulla and Melbourne could be a regular trend and if it happens to fall to one of these teams in 2017, doubt could creep in.
With losses in the last two matches against the Sharks and a winless streak of three games against the Storm there is cause for concern if North Queensland are to extend these streaks into 2017 and struggle to get up for the big games in the latter part of the season
The Cowboys haven't been bitten by the injury bug for quite some time and have been lucky in keeping together a similar squad to the one that ran out for the 2015 Grand Final (in last year's round 20 clash against Canterbury the Cowboys had 16 of its starting 17 players from the 2015 decider with only Kyle Feldt missing through injury).
As mentioned above, Jason Taumalolo will be an intrigue to watch after a brilliant last couple of seasons. His strong running style and speed make him a feared player. He can be a big player for the Cowboys if he picks up where he left off last year.
Another player to keep a close eye on will be rake Jake Granville. Granville appeared in 25 matches for two tries last season and had an up and down year as he struggled to recapture his 2015 form.
Defence's focused more on the diminutive number 9, which saw him relegated to the bench for some matches. Being asked to do more defensive work (Granville averaged 31 tackles in 2016 compared to 27 in 2015) obviously took its toll on him. However, with a successful pre-season under his belt and a nice rest, a refreshed Granville will be hoping to tear up defensive lines with his quickness around the ruck and his talented play making ability. Along with Jonathan Thurston, Granville is one of the most important members of the Cowboys squad. If he hits form, the Cowboys hit form.
The Cowboys have an embarrassment of riches in the youth department with no less than four players from its Under 20's side making the Holden Cup team of the year in 2016.
Of these players, Gideon Gela-Mosby certainly looks to have bright future in the NRL.
Mosby took the Rugby League world by storm in 2015 when he scored an incredible 39 tries in the Holden Cup season. He followed up this achievement by starring for the Cowboys in last year's edition of the Auckland 9's scoring a total of four tries. A player that is just as potent as fullback as on the wing, Mosby has clocked a 100 run sprint at 10.24 seconds to be one of the quickest Rugby League players in the world. It seems to be just a matter of time until he gets called upon for First Grade duty.
1. Lachlan Coote
2. Kyle Feldt
3. Justin O'Neill
4. Kane Linnett
5. Antonio Winterstein
6. Michael Morgan
7. Jonathan Thurston
8. Matthew Scott
9. Jake Granville
10. John Asiata
11. Gavin Cooper
12. Ethan Lowe
13. Jason Taumalolo
Click the image below for the Cowboys' full downloadable 2017 schedule.