Johnathan Thurston and the Cowboys have struggled in 2018. Picture: Alix Sweeney
Johnathan Thurston and the Cowboys have struggled in 2018. Picture: Alix Sweeney

Where has it all gone wrong for Cowboys?

FROM premiership favourites to wooden spoon contenders in the space of eight weeks.

That is the situation the North Queensland Cowboys have found themselves in following a shocking start to the NRL season.

For the past three years the Cowboys have been the pride of Queensland.

They clinched a memorable first NRL premiership in the epic all-Queensland grand final against the Broncos in 2015 before going on a fairytale run to last year's decider.

But the Cowboys have come crashing back to earth in spectacular fashion, starting the year with a 2-6 record to sit 15th on the ladder a third of the way through the season.

How did it come to this for a team boasting superstars Johnathan Thurston, Michael Morgan and Jason Taumalolo?

 

Johnathan Thurston and the Cowboys have struggled in 2018. Picture: Alix Sweeney
Johnathan Thurston and the Cowboys have struggled in 2018. Picture: Alix Sweeney

 

GRAND FINAL HANGOVER

The Cowboys of 2017 were planning their Mad Monday celebrations on the final Sunday of the regular season.

They were supposed to be no hope of making the top eight after losing co-captains Matt Scott and Thurston to season-ending injuries early in the year.

A slice of luck on that Sunday saw them sneak into eighth spot on the ladder and from there they went on a giant-killing spree.

The Cowboys won three sudden-death finals in Sydney to qualify for the ANZ Stadium grand final against Melbourne.

They lost 34-6 against the dominant Storm, but it was a minor miracle they were even there and Townsville celebrated their heroes with a parade.

"I was worried about the grand final hangover," Queensland legend Darren Lockyer said.

"They put so much into the back end of that season that it's affected them.

"We talk about premiership hangovers, even though they didn't win the grand final they almost felt like they did because of what they achieved to get there.

"It's a mental application thing. You can go into a slump. They ground out a win last week (against the Titans) but potentially thought they were out of the slump and things would happen.

"They didn't look like they had the energy they needed (in Saturday's loss to Canberra)."

 

Michael Morgan and Johnathan Thurston have failed to click as a halves pairing. Picture: Alix Sweeney
Michael Morgan and Johnathan Thurston have failed to click as a halves pairing. Picture: Alix Sweeney

 

SIXES AND SEVENS

Morgan and Thurston. Most teams would kill for those names on their roster, but for some reason they have not clicked this season.

Morgan's rise to the Kangaroos No. 6 jersey followed Thurston's shoulder injury last year.

The Townsville born and bred playmaker stepped up and became North Queensland's chief in Thurston's absence, but he has struggled to find that type of form this season.

Thurston, 35 and in his final NRL season, has also been below his best as his fairytale send-off turns into a nightmare.

"I don't think it's fair to put it all on those two," Cowboys coach Paul Green said.

"If you look across the park, we haven't really found our rhythm as a team for long enough periods yet. We've been good in patches.

"It's not fair to put it all on JT and Morgo. Across the board a lot of our combinations just aren't clicking."

 

Matt Scott has been far from his best for the Cowboys.
Matt Scott has been far from his best for the Cowboys.

 

ENGINE FAILURE

Matt Scott, Jordan McLean and Jason Taumalolo were nicknamed "The Wolf Pack" by teammate Gavin Cooper.

They were the most hyped middle forward rotation in the NRL.

Scott, a Queensland and Test veteran, and Storm recruit McLean, a Kangaroos World Cup winner, were supposed to form the most intimidating front row in the league.

Taumalolo, 24, was the 2016 Dally M Medal winner and arguably even better last season.

McLean lasted just four games before a foot injury cruelled his season while Scott has been far from his best returning from a knee reconstruction.

Taumalolo, while still impressive, has had about 20 per cent less impact than last year.

"Thurston's name pops up as doing it a bit tough, but any ball-player in the backline will tell you if the team ain't going forward then you've got nothing to work with," Immortal Wally Lewis said.

"It starts with the Cowboys forwards.

"The only one that seems to be getting any territory is Taumalolo and he's probably finding it a bit difficult when he's getting it flat-footed."

 

Where has it all gone wrong for the Cowboys?
Where has it all gone wrong for the Cowboys?

 

MISSING MOJO

At their best, the Cowboys are one of the most exciting teams in the NRL to watch.

Thurston is arguably the greatest player in the game's history. Morgan was simply untouchable during last year's finals.

There has never been a more destructive forward than Taumalolo and winger Kyle Feldt has a freakish try-scoring ability.

But the Cowboys are simply not having fun. They look tense and scared to make mistakes, which is understandable given how many they have made in a 2-6 start to the season.

"If your team's not getting forward and getting momentum then your halves are going to struggle," Lockyer said.

"Sometimes you can over analyse this. I just think they are combination of being mentally drained from last year and also having a lack of desire at times.

"The only way to get the energy back is for the forwards to go through the middle and the outside backs to help the forwards out a bit more with some aggressive running."

 

Paul Green faces a huge challenge to turn the Cowboys’ season around. Picture: Alix Sweeney
Paul Green faces a huge challenge to turn the Cowboys’ season around. Picture: Alix Sweeney

 

CAN THEY DO IT?

Green has made a habit of defying the odds in Townsville.

In 2015, North Queensland lost its first three matches before going on to win the competition.

No team has ever won the NRL from outside the top four and the Cowboys went within 80 minutes of making history last year.

The stats say the Cowboys cannot fight back and send Thurston out a winner in his final season.

However the stats have mattered little to North Queensland since Green took over the coaching duties in 2014.

"Any problem can be fixed, it's just a matter of how long it's going to take," Lewis said.

"The benefit is Paul Green has worked with them for so long. He has had plenty of time and knows how the guys are and what the best way to speak to them is.

"If JT is doing it a bit tough then others need to produce a little bit more in their game."

The second-placed Penrith Panthers at Bathurst on Friday present the ultimate test for Green's battered troops and Lockyer believes the game will define North Queensland's season.

"It's an honesty test - if they want to turn it around then we will get an indication," he said.

"If we can see evidence that the season means something to them then they will come out and play with some enthusiasm."



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