North Queensland’s disastrous start to the 2018 NRL season is the result of a stale squad which has struggled to deal with expectation, ex-Cowboy Brent Tate believes.
Last season’s grand finalists were tipped to be one of the NRL’s strongest sides again this year, with veterans Johnathan Thurston and Matt Scott returning from injury and the key acquisition of prop Jordan McLean from the Melbourne Storm.
The Cowboys have won just three of a possible 11 matches, though, and must defeat the Storm in Townsville on Friday night to keep any chance of a finals berth alive.
Former Australia and Queensland star Tate said with the benefit of hindsight, the issues at his former club were clear.
“They probably haven’t handled the expectation well,” he told The New Daily.
“Looking back, they probably limped into the finals, but then won three games to make the grand final. Those wins probably masked a few things.
“Hindsight is a wonderful thing, but I think it is really important to keep turning your squad over and keep adding players at the end of each year.
“The reason Melbourne [Storm] has been so successful is they have had a high turnover to refresh the squad.
“But in fairness, they have had a great group of core players for so long so it was hard to see coming.”
The Cowboys have made the finals for each of the last seven seasons, a run highlighted by the club’s maiden premiership in 2015.
It is a run that seems likely to end but Fox Sports commentator Tate said an example from that 2015 season should give Cowboys fans hope.
“They lost a few [three] in a row in 2015 to start the season and then came out and beat the Storm when JT [Thurston] kicked a late field goal,” he said.
“That kick-started a big run of form … there’d be no better way of getting it going than with a win on Friday.
“You just never know [about finals]. It only takes one win to turn things around sometimes.
“They are trying really hard but when you get into these holes, it can be pretty hard to win. They aren’t far off.”
The Storm has had the wood over the Cowboys in recent times, winning the past seven matches between the two sides by an average of 11 points.
Melbourne will welcome back skipper Cameron Smith and forward Sam Kasiano from suspension for the much anticipated clash, but they will lose Curtis Scott, also due to a suspension.
Craig Bellamy’s side was extremely sloppy with the ball in its 24-4 loss to Manly last week, and a repeat seems unlikely from the reigning premiers.
Defeat would mean Thurston will almost certainly bow out without another finals appearance, the inspirational Cowboys captain having already flagged his retirement at season’s end.
Tate, who defended Thurston’s recent form, said a tough last season would do nothing to the 35-year-old’s standing in the game.
“Fairytales are in kids’ stories,” he said.
“It won’t be the ideal way for him to go out, if they don’t make the finals, but it will not tarnish his reputation in any way. He has been a great player.
“I think he is still going pretty well, too. He does lead the competition in try assists.”
North Queensland Cowboys v Melbourne Storm is on Friday night at 7.55pm (AEST) and is live and ad-break free on Fox League.