Tag Archives: cowboys

A Shallow Dive into the 2021 North Queensland Cowboys

The North Queensland Cowboys finished in second last place, pipped by arch rivals – remember when that was a thing? – the Brisbane Broncos in the final round. With a 7-17 record, the Cowboys finished with the worst defence in the NRL, conceding 748 points in 24 games. That works out to 31.2 points conceded per game. Keen eyed observers would compare this to the rate at which the 2020 Brisbane Broncos leaked points, which was also 31.2 points per game and was considered an historically bad performance (13th worst in the NRL era), and use that to draw the conclusion that the Cowboys were lucky to share a league with the 2021 Bulldogs.

The Victory Lap

From the pre-season deep dive:

The actual names in the North Queensland roster should inspire some hope… Having the best forward and the once best winger in the game should do that. Payten demonstrated his chops last year… By that logic, under a new dynamic coach, one able to get the best out his men, should see the team out-perform expectations.

The Cowboys will have to push themselves to make the top eight but I am far from ruling it out. Taumalolo lost a little of his punch last season… The revival begins there, ably assisted by Francis Molo and needing more effort or bigger seasons out of Jordan McLean, Josh McGuire and Tom Gilbert. After that, some combination of Drinkwater, Morgan and Clifford needs to gel, even though Clifford is departing for Newcastle next season. Points will follow with even the most dubious outside backs in that scenario and a finals appearance thereafter.

Then again, if it were that easy, everyone would do it.

The logic is flawless, provided Todd Payten is in fact the dynamic, man manager coach that I had convinced myself he was but, it turns out, probably isn’t. I suspect this was a result of going along with the groupthink narrative instead of listening to my internal critic, although you can see my cowardly attempt at an each way bet in the digital ink.

Michael Morgan retired, which didn’t help. Jason Taumalolo’s hands suddenly appear to be made of egg shell, with multiple hand injuries sidelining the Pacific Dally Messenger this year. Jake Clifford was let go early and replaced by the inferior Tom Dearden. The pack, and/or maybe the coach, either refused to or were unable to get to grips with the new game and the results suffered for it. Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow looks better than he did last year and there are other young guys that can follow his lead.

What happened

To calculate a proxy for coaching performance, we look at the gap between the pre-season projected TPR and the actual TPR of each player in the team. Payten’s Cowboys sit about mid-field, which seems fine until you look at the company he’s keeping.

Slightly above Payten are Kevin Walters, not a man who carries a special reputation, Josh Hannay, mostly with some John Morris thrown in, and Adam O’Brien, who just coached a team to seventh place with an abysmal attack (that may be considered good coaching, depending on your perspective). Payten is a clear step behind the coaches we’d consider in the top tier and, for some reason, the Titans’ Justin Holbrook. Importantly, he’s a clear step ahead of the disasters currently unfolding at the Bulldogs, Warriors and Tigers. The jury will remain out on Payten for the time being but he will need results next year to keep his job.

Meanwhile, the Cowboys’ million dollar man for a million years has returned to his early career form. While the new rules haven’t suited him, Payten has insisted on shuffling him around and changing his role despite plenty of evidence as to how Taumalolo should be optimally used, something even Paul Green managed to work out. The one-time career WARG leader is now contributing 5.7% of the Cowboy’s Wins Above Reserve Grade, down from a peak of 19.1% in 2017. While the Cowboys’ WARG total has grown over that time and Taumalolo missed plenty of games, it’s not fast enough to disguise the decline of Taumalolo’s contribution. Taumalolo had a TPR of .113 in 2013, peaked at .180 in 2017 and has declined to just .110 in 2021. While this is still above average (just), this is despite the league-wide inflation in production thanks to Vlandoball. Todd Payten getting his head wrapped around how to get the most out of Taumalolo will likely be key to his long-term job prospects.

There’s always next year

There sure is. The problem is that the Cowboys look like going around in much the same shape again. The bottom three in 2021 were the same bottom three as in 2020. Whereas the other two members of that illustrious club have made moves to remedy this situation, the Cowboys appear content to not join this arms race.

It’s mildly concerning that while the Broncos sign Adam Reynolds and the Bulldogs sign Matt Burton, the Cowboys see Chad Townsend as an equivalent halfback.

It’s more concerning that the signing of Chad Townsend, confirmed at best to be an average footballer, came with the signing of Tom Dearden, confirmed at best to be a long term project, while still hanging on to Scott Drinkwater. It’s concerning and perplexing.

Such recruitment decisions suggests that perhaps the right hand and the left hand of the Cowboys do not necessarily speak to each other on trifling matters such as spending 800,000 Australian dollars per annum on the services of one Chadwick Townsend while spending a further few hundred thousands of dollars on another halfback that looked like Allan Langer for about three games if you squinted.

If that’s the case, there is very little to hope for moving forward, irrespective of the bona fides of Todd Payten or the structural integrity of Jason Taumalolo’s hands or that Reecce Robson and Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow are pretty handy or that there is a promising cavalry of younger players just over the horizon.

On that note:

Get ready to chalk up another one for the “how could they let him go” brigade. At least there’s always next year.

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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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.

A deep dive for each team’s 2019 NRL season

With the first Maori versus Indigenous All-stars game and another edition of the World Club Challenge in the history books, our attention turns to the NRL season ahead.

As with last year, I’m going to do a SWOP – Strength, Weakness, Opportunity and Prospect – analysis for each team. My general philosophy for judging a team’s prospects is that where a team finishes on the ladder the previous year is a more or less accurate reflection of their level, give or take a win or two. If no changes are made, we should see a similar performance if the season was repeated. There are exceptions, e.g. the Raiders pathological inability to close out a game should be relatively easy to fix and the Knights’ managed maybe two convincing wins in 2018 but still finished eleventh, but broadly, if a team finishes with seven wins and they hope to improve to thirteen and make the finals, then we should look at what significant changes have been made in order to make that leap up the table.

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One thing new NRL fans need to know about each team

Last year’s Rugby League World Cup introduced the sport to a lot of new potential fans around the world. If anyone in rugby league administration could see past their nose, they’d be trying to win over these new converts to the game’s top competition: the National Rugby League.

The 2018 season starts this week and if you’re new to the sport, trying to navigate the franchises and understanding why nine teams are based in Sydney can be an arduous task, doubly so if you’re American. I’m here to help by giving you a small overview of each team, just like you guys did for us.

If you need a wider perspective, check out the Complete History of the NRL and the Complete History of the NRL (nerd edition).

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A deep dive for each NRL team’s 2018 season

The only thing more reliable than March bringing rugby league back is the slew of season previews that each and every media outlet feels the need to produce. I’m no different in this regard and here is what is likely to be the longest post I’ve ever compiled.

This year’s season preview takes a look at each team and is a mix of my usual statistics, a bit of SWOT analysis and some good old fashioned taking a wild punt and hoping it’ll make you look wise come October.

(A SWOT analysis is where you look at Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats. There’s only one threat in the NRL, and that’s the other fifteen teams, so it’s more of a SWO analysis)

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Club Report – North Queensland Cowboys


We tend to think of the North Queensland Cowboys as an indisputable top team but in doing this, we forget just how crap they were when they first started out in 1995. The Cowboys joined the ARL as an expansion team at the same time as the Warriors, South Queensland Crushers and Western Reds. Only two of those teams survive today and it was tricky going as the Cowboys established themselves and searched for acceptance in the early days. Eventually, North Queensland built a following in regional Queensland, particularly around their home in Townsville, and their rivalry with the intrastate Brisbane Broncos is one of the most fiercely contested in the NRL.

Since superstar halfback Johnathan Thurston has came to the helm, the Cowboys have strung together a series of finals appearances as good as any team in the league, featuring every year since 2011. Their zenith was reached in 2015 when North Queensland won their first premiership, twenty years after their founding, beating the Broncos in golden point.

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Analysis – Another bloody mid-season review (Part II)

With the conclusion of round 14, it’s just over half time in the 2017 NRL season. It’s the ideal time to do what everyone else is doing and look back at the season so far. This week we’re looking at the back half of the NRL.

Part I, from Brisbane to Newcastle, was last week.


A reminder of the benchmarks that define each place on the ladder –

wins positions

And where grand finalists and premiers come from on the ladder –

gf positions

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