Sport Rugby League NRL season preview: North Queensland Cowboys
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NRL season preview: North Queensland Cowboys

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Paul Green has already shown the makings of being a fine NRL coach.

But the former halfback must also quickly prove himself as a chiropractor – fixing the trouble spots and putting the right kinks into the North Queensland Cowboys’ spine – in his first season at the helm.

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Johnathan Thurston: Photo: Getty

While the Cowboys possess the best playmaker in the game in five-eighth Johnathan Thurston, they run the risk of being major under-achievers again this year if they can’t settle on a match-winning fullback, halfback and hooker combination.

Slated as genuine title contenders last year thanks to Thurston and a big, bruising pack led by Test props Matt Scott and James Tamou, they won just six of their first 18 matches as Neil Henry struggled to assemble the key men in the key places.

Henry was given notice his services were no longer required just as Matt Bowen, Robert Lui and Ray Thompson all came into form and the Cowboys rose like Lazarus to make the play-offs.

But it’s basically back to square one for Green, whose tenure started in the most bitter-sweet way at the Auckland Nines.

North Queensland showed great ticker and skill to win the club’s maiden trophy, only to lose prize recruit Lachlan Coote in the process.

Coote’s season-ending knee injury, on top of Bowen’s move to England and the dumping of Wayne Ulugia, has left a host of unproven youngsters, led by Queensland U20s rising star Zac Santo, fighting for the No.1 jersey.

There’s even more competition at hooker – the most at the club, according to Green – with a four-way battle between Thompson, Dragons recruit Cameron King, Anthony Mitchell and Rory Kostjasyn.

Lui is expected to get first crack at halfback but is under pressure from Thompson and Michael Morgan to stay as Thurston’s playmaking partner.

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Zac Santo. Photo: Getty

With only one trial together as a full-strength group, the heat is on Green to make the right calls from the outset.

After a successful coaching apprenticeship at Wynnum in the Queensland Cup and the Sydney Roosters in the Under-20 Holden Cup, he wants to settle on his combinations quickly and let them gel.

Apart from making them fitter in 2014, the former Queensland halfback and 1995 Rothmans Medallist is trying to add something that has been lacking too often at the 19-year-old club.

“My thing for this team is just to be consistent,” Green told AAP.

“They have been a great team on their day but just haven’t been able to produce week-in, week-out.

“For me, that’s my main goal.”

Green said altering the team’s on-field mentality was only part of it.

“It’s also how you train and how you approach your training as well so that’s what I’ve concentrated on.”


 NORTH QUEENSLAND COWBOYS

Premierships: None

Finishes over the past three seasons: 2013 – 8th, 2012 – 5th, 2011 – 7th

Coach: Paul Green

Co-captains: Johnathan Thurston, Matt Scott.

Gains: Lachlan Coote (Panthers), Cameron King (Dragons), Matt Wright (Sharks), Hezron Murgha (Northern Pride).

Losses: Matt Bowen (Wigan), Kalifa Faifai Loa (Titans), Dallas Johnson (retired), Wayne Ulugia (released), Ashley Graham (retired), Jayden Hodges (Sea Eagles), Chris Grevsmuhl (Rabbitohs).

Strength: Star power. With Test props Matt Scott and James Tamou leading the way up front and Johnathan Thurston calling the shots in behind.

Weakness: Depth in the back three. The Cowboys have not only lost favourite son Matt Bowen and his replacement Lachlan Coote (knee), but they’ve also farewelled wingers Ashley Graham, Wayne Ulugia and Kalifa Faifai Loa.

Money man: Hands-down, Johnathan Thurston. The Test and Queensland Origin five-eighth remains the best playmaker in the game and he’s hungry to pilot the Cowboys to their maiden title while still at the peak of his powers.

One to watch: Zac Santo. Green sees Queensland Under-20 fullback Santo as a star of the future and he’s set to get his chance earlier than expected after the loss of Coote to injury.

Best team: Zac Santo, Antonio Winterstein, Kane Linnett, Brent Tate, Kyle Feldt, Johnathan Thurston, Robert Lui, Matt Scott, Ray Thompson, James Tamou, Jason Tamalolo, Gavin Cooper, Joel Riethmuller. Interchange: Rory Kostjasyn, Tariq Sims, Ashton Sims, Scott Bolton.

Predicted finish: 6th

Betting: $15