Wests Tigers v Sea Eagles preview
3 hours ago | Tim Costello
After enduring an unexpectedly dismal 2018 campaign, the North Queensland Cowboys will be looking to resume regular transmission as competition heavyweights, minus legendary halfback Johnathan Thurston.
Predicted by many pundits to challenge for the title in Thurston's farewell season, the tenacious traits that previously made the Cowboys such formidable opponents evaporated without warning as Paul Green's side slumped to 13th on the ladder. Indicative of the team's decline, in 2017 the side featured in the top eight for all bar one week, while twelve months later an almost identical roster managed to sit in eighth position for just a single week of the season.
Making several smart investments in an effort to deal with life post-JT, Australian representative Josh McGuire headlines the recruitment drive, bolstering an already imposing forward pack after securing an unexpected release from the Broncos. Among the other new faces in Townsville, Brisbane pair Jordan Kahu and Tom Opacic will be hoping to cement starting positions in the backline, journeyman Kurt Baptiste will provide solid depth at hooker, while Papua New Guinea international Nene MacDonald could prove to be the dark horse for buy of the year following a stellar season at the Dragons.
Facing St. George Illawarra at 1300SMILES Stadium on the first Saturday of the new campaign, North Queensland will be banking on a fast start with four of their first five matches at home. Set to endure a testing middle third with multiple players in line to play representative football, the closing rounds will see the Cowboys farewell their long-standing home ground against the Bulldogs - the same side they faced in their premiership debut back in 1995.
While the absence of arguably the greatest individual to ever play rugby league cannot be ignored, the Cowboys remain a formidable roster as a result of world-class forwards, an international halves pairing and a backline set for rejuvenation. With a wealth of representative experience and 10 grand final winners adding to the mix, the quality present throughout the playing ranks, in addition to the incentive to make up for last year's disappointment, should see North Queensland return to form.
On eight occasions throughout 2018 the Cowboys lost matches by margins of 8 points or less. While few would doubt the attacking potential of a team boasting the likes of Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo, the closeness of the NRL, especially in the approach taken by the Sydney Roosters as reigning premiers, suggests that the measure of a quality side is in the amount of close wins and tries opponents are held to.
In a competition where the difference between winning and losing can be determined by a single goal kick or last-gasp play, the task afforded to Morgan and Jordan Kahu of turning narrow losses into wins will shape how the side fares without JT.
Experiencing a year to forget as North Queensland's marquee recruit, representative prop Jordan McLean will be hoping 2019 brings a turn in fortune having managed just ten appearances for his new club. Signed from the Melbourne Storm off the back of premiership and World Cup success, the 27-year-old's absence proved telling in accounting for the mediocrity offered up by the Cowboys diminishing front row depth; but with a full off-season and fellow Kangaroos forward Josh McGuire on hand to help carry the load, McLean looms as a vital figure in helping his teammates course-correct for the disappointment of last year.
Earmarked as a New South Wales representative by Brad Fittler only to suffer the frustration of missing four months of football due to a lisfranc fracture, expect McLean to embody the Cowboys as a whole with a return to the standards rivals have come to expect in recent times.
While Gideon Gela-Mosby and Jake Clifford have tasted varying amounts of first grade over the past two years, the duo should see a considerable increase in game time in 2019.
Regarded as one of the quickest men in rugby league with six tries in eight appearances, 22-year-old Gela-Mosby will have his sights set on nailing down a permanent place in the backline following the departures of premiership winners Antonio Winterstein and Kane Linnett.
Showing great potential in limited game time alongside Johnathan Thurston, Queensland Under 20s star Clifford looks set to face off against New Zealand international Te Maire Martin for the right to partner returning playmaker Michael Morgan in the halves, while also being a strong contender to feature as Paul Green's preferred bench utility following the termination of Ben Barba's contract.
Gains: Kurt Baptiste (Roosters), Nene MacDonald (Dragons), Josh McGuire, Jordan Kahu, Tom Opacic (Broncos).
Losses: Ethan Lowe (Rabbitohs), Shaun Fensom (Broncos), Lachlan Coote (St. Helens), Kane Linnett (Hull KR), Johnathan Thurston, Antonio Winterstein (retired), Sam Hoare, Kyle Laybutt, Josh Chudleigh, Shaun Hudson (released).