A Shallow Dive into the 2020 North Queensland Cowboys

I didn’t offer anything particularly insightful about the North Queensland Cowboys in my season preview. For me, it seemed like all the pieces were there for them to be successful but they refused to win enough games to get out of the cellar. The team was shackled by playing former greats instead of the talented in the here and now, stifled by a lack of fifth tackle options and dogged by a defence that got worse with every game. The Cowboys were stuck circling the drain but never quite managed to find their way into the plughole.

2020 was another year in the same vein and we wonder what will break the cycle.

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Summary

The Cowboys managed to be bad in such a way that it attracted minimal attention outside of their own fanbase. Their roster should have had them in the finals and for the third consecutive season, they finished in the bottom four. Coach Paul Green was fired. In the NRL era, the wooden spooner wins 25.8% of their games on average; the Cowboys managed 25.0% in 2020.

What happened

If we look at the Cowboys’ Pythagorean expectation, there is some room for hope. Their for and against suggested the Cowboys should have been around 7-13, good enough to clear the bottom four at least. North Queensland may have been the victim of some bad luck in being unable to convert for and against when faces with binary of losses and wins. They were rarely blown out of the water, registering just four losses out of fifteen by 18 or more points (season average of 26.0 points conceded per game), but put up only 12 points or less in eight games (season average of 18.4 points scored per game).

In Elo terms, the Cowboys averaged a form rating of 1433 over the season, roughly equivalent to a 8-12 season and a noticeable improvement over their actual 5-15 record.

The Cowboys’ production put them thirteenth best in the league, clear of the Bulldogs, Titans and Broncos and putting them in the same conversation as the Warriors and Manly.

A deficit of 32 Taylors to the league average is roughly equivalent to 50 Elo rating points or very roughly equivalent to a four point headstart.

If we compare by position, the weaknesses become clearer.

Herein we see that the team is generally outplayed across the park. The wingers are on par with the league average, probably due to Kyle Feldt’s try scoring helping mask his defensive deficiencies, which is not tracked well by TPR but he shows up at the bottom of the list for Net Points Responsible For.

The obvious standout is Jason Taumalolo, already one of the all time greats, at lock. Taumalolo averaged 47.0 Taylors per game (season TPR .176 or 12% of the Cowboys’ total production) while the league average lock excluding Taumalolo produced 25.8. If we were to replace him with the league average, the Cowboys production drops from 382 Taylors per game to 355. That would slot North Queensland in between Canterbury and the Gold Coast, from thirteenth in the league to fifteenth, just above Brisbane.

While this shows Taumalolo’s outsized individual contribution to the fortunes of the Cowboys’, it also highlights the limitations of analysis by production or Pythagorean expectation or Elo ratings. Production correlates to winning but what actually wins games is points on the board. That responsibility falls primarily on the playmakers – currently some unresolved combination of Jake Clifford, Michael Morgan, Scott Drinkwater and Reece Robson – to make it happen, as well as better execution out of the likes of Valentine Holmes and his comrades in the outside backs. The younger talents to replace the class of 2015 have arrived and it’s now on the Cowboys and their new coach to make them into first graders – preferably with some sense of defensive cohesion – and then into contenders.

What’s next

Other than a golden eight weeks or so from Michael Morgan in the run to the 2017 grand final, the franchise has struggled since Johnathan Thurston injured his shoulder in 2017. That seems to have been a limitation of Paul Green’s management style. Despite bringing the club its first premiership in 2015, three years at the wrong end of the ladder was enough to end his time in Townsville.

Todd Payten comes in as the Cowboys’ new coach, after impressing the league with the resilience he has managed to instill in the Warriors during his abbreviated and temporary tenure. He will not have to live with Thurston’s legacy casting a shadow over his own or have to work out how to retool his entire system. Simplistically, his impetus could be the extra edge the team needs not just to convert shoulda-coulda wins into reality but to win enough games to reflect the calibre of players on the roster. We wait with bated breath.

Off the field, Queensland Country Bank Stadium had all of one home game before coronavirus, which was a sellout against the Broncos, meaning that the Cowboys either had the highest attendance this year, according to Rugby League Project, or the fifth highest, according to AFLTables. If/when things return to normal, that facility should serve the club well, being significantly closer to Townsville’s city centre and the Cowboys Leagues Club than the old Dairy Farmers.

The Cowboys’ pay TV ratings are up slightly on last year, from 226,000 to 232,000, but only good enough for ninth best in 2020. This is a far cry from as recently as 2017, when the Cowboys led the league on Foxtel, and running a close second to the Broncos in 2018 with 260,000 viewers (part of this will be due to time slot changes). North Queensland remains an anomaly in rugby league, with such a large and geographically disparate fanbase, but as all fanbases do, they demand success if they are to remain engaged.