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Cowboys’ plan to bounce back from shocker 2023 as decision on club stalwart looms: State of Play

It’s fair to say the Cowboys were one of the big disappointments in 2023.

The season after they hosted a preliminary final (loss to Parramatta) in 2022, North Queensland got off to a sluggish 3-6 start that they weren’t able to overcome.

Todd Payten’s men did bounce back during the middle of the season with a six-game winning streak, but ran out of legs at the back end to finish outside the top eight.

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Despite the disappointing season, there should be optimism in North Queensland this season. because on paper, their roster is loaded with representative talent everywhere you look.

Fullback Scott Drinkwater enjoyed a career season, emerging as one of the league’s best attacking fullbacks while the club boast a number of young, promising forwards who will feature prominently in 2024.

Read on for the Cowboys State of Play.

2023 FINISH: 11th 12W 12L

COACH: Todd Payten

It’s been an even three years at the helm for Payten, who has a record of 37 wins and 37 losses since joining the Cowboys from the start of the 2021 season.

It’s a credit to him that in just his second season, Payten coached the Cowboys to a preliminary final, with his commitment to building a stout defence proving key. It didn’t go unnoticed either, with Payten awarded the 2022 Coach of the Year.

The Cowboys’ pre-season in 2023 was probably hindered with due to so many players taking part in the World Cup, but there won’t be any excuses this time around with Payten to likely go back to what worked leading into the 2022 season.

James Maloney and former Warriors assistant Justin Morgan are astute additions to the coaching staff.

Another underwhelming year would put Payten on the coaching hot seat, but at the moment is job is fairly secure and he has so far proven he is the right man to help guide the Cowboys back to a grand final.

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Cowboys coach Todd Payten. GettySource: Getty Images

SQUAD: Chad Townsend (2024), Coen Hess (2024), D’Jazirhae Pua’avase (2025), Griffin Neame (2025), Helium Luki (2024, PO 2025), Jack Gosiewski (2025), Jake Clifford (2024), Jake Granville (2024), Jamayne Taunoa-Brown (2024), Jason Taumalolo (2027), Jeremiah Nanai (2027), Jordan McLean (2024), Kulikefu Finefeuiaki (2024), Kyle Feldt (2024), Luciano Leilua (2025), Murray Taulagi (2026), Reece Robson (2025), Reuben Cotter (2025), Robert Derby (2025), Sam McIntyre (2024), Scott Drinkwater (2027), Semi Valemei (2024), Thomas Duffy (2025), Thomas Dearden (2024), Tom Chester (2024), Valentine Holmes (2025), Viliami Vailea (2025), Zac Laybutt (2024)

Development players: Emarly Bitungane (2025), Jai Hansen (2024), Jamal Shibasaki (2025), Jodeci Baker-Tiraha (2024), Kaiden Lahrs (2024)

PLAYERS IN: Viliami Vailea (Warriors), Jake Clifford (Super League)

PLAYERS OUT: James Tamou (retired), Peta Hiku (Hull KR), Mitch Dunn (unsigned), Ben Hampton (unsigned) Brendan Elliot (unsigned) Riley Price (Panthers), Gehamat Shibasaki (unsigned), Jake Bourke (unsigned), Taniela Sadrugu (unsigned)

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WHERE THEY NEED TO IMPROVE: Defence

The Cowboys’ successful 2022 campaign was built on the back of their defence but that aspect of their game fell by the wayside last season.

It wasn’t bad by any means, but it was considerably worse than 2022, the season they finished third.

In 2022, North Queensland conceded just 361 points while last season, that number ballooned out to 542, a difference of 181. The lowlight came when the Wests Tigers put 66 points on them in Round 12.

Defence is effort-based, and Payten will be keen to let his side know that the proof is in the pudding that they are capable and have shown they can return to being one of the stingiest teams in the league.

They just have to want it.

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WHO THEY SHOULD/ COULD SIGN: Halfback

The Cowboys will need a halfback in 2025 with Chad Townsend to likely finish up with the club and retire after next season.

Townsend’s play in 2023 was up-and-down at best, with the veteran half unable to replicate his solid campaign the season prior when helping lead North Queensland to a preliminary final.

So, if Townsend’s struggles continue next season, the Cowboys may shift Tom Dearden to halfback to see if the Maroons rep can fill that void, or whether he’s better suited at five-eighth.

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Chad Townsend of the Cowboys. GettySource: Getty Images

It’s worth noting NQ have signed Jake Clifford, but he has yet to prove he’s a guy that can lead a team to postseason success.

If the Cowboys do re-sign Dearden and keep him at six, a play at a veteran half Luke Keary could be an option on a short-term contract.

Keary is at the back end of his career but still has something to offer. He comes off contract with the Roosters at the end of 2024.

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PLAYER UNDER MOST PRESSURE: Jason Taumalolo

Signed a historic ten-year deal in 2017 worth $1 million a season, and while he can still be a dominant metre-eater on his day, he will be 31 in May and probably isn’t playing up to his contract right now. If Taumalolo doesn’t show more consistency this season, the Cowboys could look to release him to free up some space to allow Dearden to stay on the roster and to re-sign a couple of promising forwards in Heilum Luki and Kulikefu Finefeuiaki. The Daily Telegraph’s Michael Carayannis believes it’s something the Cowboys have to consider, despite how hard a decision it would be to let go of one of the North Queensland’s favourite sons. “He’s got four years left on that deal Jason, and I mean it never goes over a million dollars but still, if he was on the open market now what would he be worth? His market value would be around $600,000 to $650,000,” Carayannis said. “If I’m looking for someone at the Cowboys… I’d sell him, I’d try and sell him. There’s value for him on the open market at $700,000.”

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YOUNG GUN TO WATCH: Kulikefu Finefeuiaki

North Queensland boast a glutton of impressive, young backrowers including Finefeuiaki, a hard-running 19-year-old who burst onto the scene in 2023. He debuted against the Roosters in Magic Round and went onto play in 12 games for the Cowboys. He comes off contract at the end of 2024 so expect rival clubs to be circling next season if they aren’t already. He was extremely impressive, inspirational in a bench role and should be a look for Round 1 next season. With the debut season under the belt and natural improvement, expect Finefeuiaki to become a recognised name in the NRL in 2024.

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