NRL 2023 Team Preview: North Queensland Cowboys Free Agency Wrap, Crystal Ball

The Cowboys enjoyed a record 2022 but the threat of a massive outflow of players could derail their Premier League aspirations. Check out our deep dive to the club.

There is much optimism in Townsville after a breakout season in 2022 in which coach Todd Payten’s long-term goals seemed to be coming true for the Cowboys.

With some of the game’s greatest talent, a fearsome forward pack and experienced halves, the Cowboys are a team that knows who it is – and what it needs to do to take a few steps better next year.

Peter Badel goes over everything you need to know about the Cowboys in our exclusive club-by-club deep dive series ahead of the 2023 season.

2022 Rich 100 reps: 6

Jason Taumalolo (15, $900K), Valentine Holmes (18, $875K), Jordan McLean (36, $750K), Chad Townsend (44, $710K), Luciano Leilua (74, $600K), Coen Hess (84, $550,000)

FREE AGENCY PACKAGING

Stability is key for the Cowboys, who added just a sprinkling of new faces after their fairytale assault on the interim finals last season. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. But fresh blood is never a bad thing and the signing of James Tamou, who returns to Townsville for a career swan song after six years aged 33, will add some Premiership know-how to the Cowboys pack. Jack Gosiewski (Dragons) adds depth to the back row, with Heilum Luki (ACL injury) and Luciano Leilua (off-field issues) set to miss the start of the season. The Cowboys lost two key squad members in Origin Brandbrand Tom Gilbert and speed machine Hamiso Tabuai-Fidow to the Dolphins. Gilbert in particular will be a great loss. The Cowboys have a whopping 15 unsigned players next season, including rising superstar Jeremiah Nanai, who is set to receive huge offers from opposing clubs.

RATING: C

COACH STATUS

Todd Payten was originally out of contract next season but is in the advanced stages of brokering a three-year extension, a sweet reward for north Queensland’s stellar revival in 2022. The Cowboys’ shock attack into the top four last season led to Payten being hailed as one of the rising stars of the NRL coaching ranks. After a difficult first season replacing Paul Green in 2021, Payten continued to believe in his methods and was vindicated as the Cowboys players responded to the harder mental edge he was pushing on defense. The Cowboys hierarchy believe Payten can cede the club’s second Premiership. No bus is safer in 2023 than Payten.

SAFETY CLASS: A

PROBABLY DEBUTANT

Riley Price and Taniela Sadrugu. The Cowboys bled a slew of young savages last season, and there’s more to come in Price and Sadrugu. The former is the son of Queensland Origin and Bulldogs legend Steve Price and, like his old man, the 21-year-old Riley has impressed with his work ethic and ability to play prop or second row. Sadrugu is a heavily built center or winger who joined the Cowboys last year after retiring from Fijian rugby union. He represented Fiji at the World Cup and after scoring seven tries in 15 games for feeder club Townsville at the Queensland Cup this year, the 24-year-old is keen to make his mark in the NRL.

Who’s taking the next step: Tom Dearden has only scratched the surface of his talent. The 21-year-old endured a tumultuous two years with the Broncos, but his move to North Queensland has helped Dearden rebuild his game and confidence. In 2022, Payten’s faith in Dearden was confirmed as the Broncos thrived as Chad Townsend’s half-partner and were rewarded with his Queensland origin debut. Dearden turned his head on the Blues to inspire the Maroons’ win in the Suncorp decider and will be a key figure in the Cowboys’ Premiership attack.

THREE BURNING PROBLEMS

1. ARE YOU THE REAL DEAL?

The Cowboys shocked the league in 2022, but they will fool no one next season and there will be tremendous expectation for Payten’s troops to fire again. Given that they reached the provisional finals this year, anything but an appearance in the grand finals in 2023 will be seen as a form of regression.

2. CAN CAPTAIN CHAD SURVIVE?

Former Sharks halfback Chad Townsend was one of the buys of the 2022 season but he will be 32 when the new Premier League begins. Veterans in their 30s can lose their mojo in the blink of an eye in the NRL, and the Cowboys are hoping Townsend keeps bypassing Father Time. The co-captain is entering the second season of a three-year deal and is known for his professionalism, leaving Townsend hungry to expand the Premiership ring he won at Cronulla in 2016.

3. WILL THE COWBOYS KEEP JUMPING JEREMIAH?

Posh Nanai is arguably the best teenage forward in the code, but he’s out of contract next season and that’s ringing alarm bells among the Cowboys. After 17 tries in a remarkable first full season, Nanai has his price tag down and NRL rivals are already swinging the carrot with offers in excess of $800,000 per season. Securing the Queensland Origin sensation with a long-term deal may help build a Premiership dynasty for the Cowboys.

CRYSTAL BALL

It feels like this Cowboys team is just getting started. They have a great mix of youth and experience and in Payten the Cowboys have a coach who can bring North Queensland to the promised land. They should be aiming for the top 4 in 2023 and if they stay fit, they won’t appear in the grand finals.

FINISH FOR THE LAST FIVE YEARS

2022: 3rd (eliminated in third week of finals)

2021: 15

2020: 14th

2019: 13

2018: 15

2023 ODDS

Premier League: $11

Minor Premiership: $13

To reach the grand final: $5.50

Top four: $2.40

Top Eight: $1.35

Most Losses: $81

Originally released as NRL 2023 Team Previews: North Queensland Cowboys Free Agency Wrap, Crystal Ball

https://www.codesports.com.au/nrl/nrl-2023-team-previews-north-queensland-cowboys-free-agency-wrap-crystal-ball/news-story/62c56667a53025c7d4d0a094791043ab?nk=0ee8f7cd8196fd7d4ee6bc7e091a5415-1672257967 NRL 2023 Team Preview: North Queensland Cowboys Free Agency Wrap, Crystal Ball

Ryan Sederquist

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